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July 3, 2006

The Legend of Fireball Mountain

Author: Evan Kilgore
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy
Storyline:7
Dialogue: 4
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

When his parents disappear on the hunt for a mystical gemstone, a high school student is led on a wild adventure on a mysterious island.

Synopsis:

Three men and one woman are in a private plane, approaching an island. JUAN SANCHEZ pilots the plane, COLIN SCUDDER and BEN SHAW are explorers, and BETHANY SHAW is Ben’s wife, tagging along for love of her husband. As they approach the island, huge fireballs shoot from the tip of a mountain. Juan loses control of the plane, and it crashes.

JACK SHAW, 17-year-old son of Ben and Bethany, has a rough time at school. He’s a geek and, aside from TREVOR (his one good friend) and LOREN (his bitter ex-girlfriend), he’s lonely. He’s bullied and humiliated by obnoxious athlete LAWSON SCUDDER. He has a job at the zoo, getting paid almost nothing to take care of monkeys while overseen by a penny-pinching, discompassionate manager. Jack’s befriended a monkey called RUPERT, and after being chewed out by his boss, Jack gets angry and kidnaps Rupert. When they arrive at Jack’s house, Jack discovers an eviction notice posted on his front door. He calls the offices of Scudder Search & Salvage and speaks with PAULO SANCHEZ — Juan’s brother — who has no information.

When Paulo asks MIRIAM SCUDDER — Colin’s cousin, and the mother of Lawson — about it, she gives him an ultimatum: “Help me if you want to see your brother alive again.” She lets him think about that while she goes into a board of directors meeting. The board gives her an ultimatum of their own: either she finds a mystical gemstone — the same one that the team at the beginning are searching for — or she’s fired. With limited resources and the help of Paulo and Lawson, Miriam sets out for the island.

Meanwhile, Jack has called ALAN CARVER, an old family friend and fellow explorer. Carver arrives and explains to Jack the Legend of Fireball Mountain: the island is supposedly the last resting place of a “dark god” called Draccon, who fell in love with a human girl and carved a gemstone for her. If any mortal finds the gemstone, the wedding ring, and recites their vows on this island, they will be embodied by Draccon and have godly powers. It can either be used for the forces of good, or pure evil, depending on the person Draccon embodies. According to Carver, Ben has been seeking these artifacts for most of his career. Ben’s found the ring, which has really set him off on the quest for the gemstone. Loren interrupts, arriving unannounced to complain to Jack that she’s been expelled forced to go to a teen boot-camp. The two of them convince Carver to fly them to the island to rescue Jack’s parents. Jack brings Rupert with them.

Fireballs nearly bring down Carver’s plane on the way to the island. They make a crash-landing in the sea and swim their way to safety. Neither Jack nor Rupert can swim, so Carver and Loren have to drag them both to the safety of the beach. Rupert disappears into the jungle in search of other chimps, who are fierce and frighten him away. The three humans set out into the jungle, where they almost immediately bump into Miriam, Paulo, Lawson, and a group of Scudder employees. As Jack tries to make his way across a rickety rope bridge over a crevasse, Miriam orders her employees to cut the ropes. They do so, nearly causing Jack to plunge to his death. He’s rescued by Loren and Carver, who found a way to the bottom of the crevasse. Lawson is horrified by his mother’s willingness to have nonthreatening people murdered. She explains that the gemstone will make them rich.

The Scudder group is led by IATU, an island native. When Miriam finds and pockets a shard of gem, Iatu explains that the island does not like it when things are removed from his island. Miriam scoffs at island legends, but her removal of the gem causes an earthquake. The quake kills Carver, and Jack and Loren barely make it out alive. Miriam reluctantly puts the gem shard back, and the island settles a bit.

Jack, who studied the maps on the plane ride to the island, leads Loren through the jungle. They simultaneously find Rupert and are nearly killed by a giant fireball. To escape it, they dive into a river. A giant snake slithers toward them, and Loren kills it with her bare hands, impressing Jack. Rupert saves them from another snake. Meanwhile, the Scudder group has found the wreckage of Ben’s plane. They find a fresh grave, which horrifies Paulo. Miriam offers her henchman $1000 for each person they kill, from both Ben’s team and Jack’s.

Jack and Loren get into an argument about their past relationship as they make camp for the night. The next morning, they stumble upon an ancient village built around an amphitheater that, according to Jack, is where the Draccon ritual must be held — there’s an altar specifically designed for the mystical gemstone. They’re interrupted by a Henchman shooting at them. Lawson witnesses this, and watches them narrowly escape death. Jack and Loren are chased into a cave, which is a dead end. Jack insists there should be tunnels. He find hieroglyphics on a cave wall that match a necklace he has been wearing since the beginning. He holds the necklace to the wall, and it rumbles open. They disappear through the doorway, which seals behind them. They navigate the cave tunnels until they come out at Ben’s crash site. They watch silently as Paulo digs up the grave.

When Paulo is safely away, Jack and Loren head through bushes and find Juan Sanchez, murdered by Ben’s hunting knife. Jack is horrified. In the wreckage of a plane, they find a barely functioning satellite phone, which Jack uses to call Trevor. He explains the situation and tells him to get help. Trevor reluctantly agrees. Paulo hears static from the phone and comes running back. Jack and Loren get back into the cave tunnels, but Paulo finds Juan’s body.

In the tunnels, Jack and Loren find Lawson, who says he’s come to warn them about the Henchmen who want them dead. Meanwhile, Paulo has found Miriam. He blames her for Juan’s death. She tells him that once they find the gemstone, they can bring him back to life. They defile a statue of Draccon, which causes another earthquake. Jack, Loren, and Lawson narrowly escape the collapsing cave tunnels, and they come out right at a gem shrine near the Draccon statue. They watch as Miriam approaches to take the gemstone, but Loren realizes it’s an intentional decoy. Paulo fears something’s wrong and tries to stop Miriam. When he’s distracted by the kids running from the cave mouth, Miriam shoves him out of her way and takes the decoy gem. Paulo chases Jack toward a waterfall, where Jack sees the real gemstone shimmering behind the water. Paulo runs past him, gets the gem. Loren and Lawson try to lunge the fake out of Miriam’s hands. She fights them off and rushes away. As the stone bridge across the waterfall crumbles, Lawson tries to save Jack from plunging to his death. He doesn’t, and Jack drops into the raging river below, rushed off and unable to swim. Lawson and Loren realize what the earthquakes are doing: sinking the island. Loren wants to find Jack.

Colin Scudder saves Jack, who forces Colin to take him to where he last saw Jack’s parents. Jack narrowly escapes a fireball, only to discover he’s been saved by his father, Ben. Ben tells him that Bethany died in the crash, which prompts some angst between them. He explains about Miriam and Paulo, and they rush off to stop them, leaving Colin behind. They see Miriam doing the incantation with the decoy, and Ben explains that using the real gemstone without the ring may open a hole to hell itself. Paulo overhears this, threatens them with guns, and steals the ring from Ben as he delivers both of them to Miriam. Miriam finishes the incantation, which causes Paulo — not her — to gain godlike powers. He rushes off into the lavastream, which parts for him. Jack and Ben chase him, and as Paulo is about to transform into a god, Jack bravely swoops out, steals the ring away, which causes both Paulo and Draccon to disappear. Now they’re all forced to run like hell to make it to the Scudder seaplane before the island fully sinks. They narrowly make it, and discover Colin Scudder is already there and prepping for takeoff. Lawson and Rupert barely make it, and against the protests of everyone on the plane, Jack lets down a rope to grab them.

They fly off, but only for a little while. The plane runs out of fuel, so they skid to a stop in the middle of the ocean…where Trevor and a rescue team come to save them. It turns out Ben has taken the gem, which means they’re all filthy rich.

Comments:

This rollicking adventure is a whole lot of fun, but it has two significant problems that keep it from realizing its potential: wooden dialogue and a surplus of characters.

The dialogue doesn’t sound natural. It rings false in the mouths of 17-year-old kids especially, but even the adults’ dialogue is either overloaded with bland exposition or (mostly in the case of the villains) packed with clichés. This problem goes hand-in-hand with the surplus of characters: the main reason the dialogue is all exposition all the time is because the story is so overstuffed with people that there’s no breathing room. Not “breathing room” in the sense of pausing between each action set-piece — just in the sense that every scene fills stiff and on-the-nose because it’s trying to service so many different characters’ subplots at all times. It’s quite a feat that all the different subplots (and their motivations, backstories, arcs, and resolutions,) are clear in the end, but there’s so much going on that individual scenes, especially dialogue-heavy scenes, feel incredibly dull. The script as a whole suffers as a result.

My suggestions for streamlining start, first and foremost, with the Juan/Paulo subplot. When thinking about it, Miriam seems uniquely stupid for suggesting Paulo be her right-hand-man on this mission. It seems pretty clear that she knows Ben, Bethany, and Colin well enough to know what Juan might have been up against. Especially in light of the fact that Juan never came back, it seems irrational that not only would she drag Paulo to the island with her — she’d go as far as to tell him that the power of this gemstone/ring can bring his brother back to life. He obviously knows Miriam well enough to know she plans to screw him over, but she doesn’t realize this? And she doesn’t think he’ll use the information for his own selfish reasons? This whole subplot takes up way too much screen time but doesn’t really make much sense.

Even the story of Juan flying them to the island to kill them doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. First, Miriam wants them dead so nobody can interfere with getting the gemstone and performing the ritual herself. The gemstone is the most valuable thing to her, so if Juan fails, he’s left them on the island with the gemstone, where Ben can perform the ritual and easily get off the island with newfound godly power. Even if Ben doesn’t plan to use the gemstone — if he just wants it to prevent others from using it — Colin is a trained pilot, and the crash-landing was unforeseen. If they had landed perfectly, killed Juan, and found the gemstone, they could have just as easily left. There are too many holes in Miriam’s original plan; when combined with Paulo’s story, it’s just a disaster.

What if, instead, Miriam has one of her Henchmen perform the incantation with the decoy? She’s supposed to be smart and clever — wouldn’t she suspect that maybe it’s a fake? That way, any harm would be done to the Henchman, and she’ll know to keep looking. From there, the ending can unfold pretty much as it does, but with Miriam in place of Paulo.

The two most unnecessary characters outside of that subplot are Rupert and Lawson. Maybe Rupert’s cute, but he’s extraneous. Aside from saving their lives a couple of times, he adds nothing to the story. Sure, he represents Jack’s own character growth in an unsubtle metaphor, but is that really necessary? Lawson’s pretty much the same way: the school bully redeemed after looking at his mother’s evil and deciding to help the good guys. It’s not bad by any means, but it’s a story that’s been told before and it just adds more convolution to an already overstuffed plot.

With the time gained by losing all the unnecessary characters and subplots, it gives the characters an opportunity to really shine within this story. Instead of spending the bulk of their time either flatly stating their backstories or what’s currently happening in the plot, they can speak like real people, have real conversations, and allow the island plot and the backstory to reveal itself in more natural ways.

It would also help to have a little bit of fun with the ridiculousness of the whole Legend of Fireball Mountain. Everybody pretty much accepts it as fact, despite how insane it sounds. If everybody has a healthy disbelief that’s maybe shaken (both literally and metaphorically) by strange happenings on the island, the goofy nature of the Legend would integrate better with characters who are rooted in reality.

The main strengths of the script are the action set-pieces and the overall adventure story. If the characters and dialogue were as well-written, this could be a great script.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 2:37 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 5, 2006

That Chick

Author: Unknown
Genre: Sitcom
Storyline: 4
Dialogue: 5
Characterization: 3
Writer’s Potential: 4

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

A young “urbanista” trying to break into the fashion industry gets her shot when a hairstyler overdoses.

Synopsis:

EMMY, the young assistant fashion editor at an “urbanista” magazine in New York, has one big problem: she desires power and respect in her industry but has very little. She has enough power to get into a trendy, upscale club in Lower Manhattan, courtesy of her DJ brother CIELO. She uses this small amount of power for good, helping others get in, including semi-nerdy grad student MARCUS. Although she’s friends with model NERISSA, she has no actual power in the fashion industry. As luck would have it, celebrity hairstylist CLIFF JONES overdoses on Ecstasy the night before a big shoot for Shine, the magazine Emmy works for. This means bad things for her direct superior, fashion editor CHLOE, whose job is on the line for not lining up a second photographer for this type of situation. Of course, Emmy’s job is also on the line because she was at the same club Cliff was the night before.

VERONICA, the editor-in-chief of Shine, is about to toss Chloe in the street when she notices Emmy’s gorgeous hairstyle. Emmy reveals that her mother, DELCIA, is her stylist. Delcia reluctantly agrees to style the models’ hair, but she’s committed to her regulars and refuses to leave the shop. This leads to the models, photographers, and editors taking a ride uptown to Delcia’s beauty shop. Through a misunderstanding, the slovenly regulars at Delcia’s shop believe they’re also going to be photographed for the magazine. Both Veronica and the photographer see the artistic brilliance of a location shoot at a “gritty” uptown beauty shop, with both models and “gritty” uptown women. This saves both Chloe’s and Emmy’s jobs.

Veronica notices a gorgeous photo of Emmy from the shoot at the beauty shop, and it is implied that Emmy will be propelled to stardom (much to Chloe’s dismay). Later, Emmy finally agrees to give Marcus the time of day, implying a future romance may blossom.

Comments:

First and foremost, probably the biggest problem — being that it’s a sitcom — is that it’s just not very funny. There is some wit to the dialogue, but not enough; if one ignores the dark subject matter (as the author does, playing it mostly for upbeat, network-friendly laughs), the characters and situations created to tell this story are pretty routine. Wacky mishaps abound, dull love interests, all adding up to something that’s not terribly funny or innovative…

…unless you plug in the subject matter itself. The author shows a world that I’ve never seen on television before — a subculture of desperate “urbanistas” trying to club (as in dance, not beat with wooden sticks) their way to a successful modeling career. This is a world loaded with sex, drug use (including an overdose), exclusive dance clubs, jealousy, egotism, even a bit of class warfare when the “downtown” models go to the uptown beauty shop. It’s hard to reconcile the underlying darkness of this material with the attempt at traditional, four-camera sitcom writing. With a great deal of rewriting, this could work as a pitch-black satire of both the fashion industry and the “urbanista” subculture, aimed to a cable network like FX. Lightening the subject matter could make it more appealing to a “Big Four” network, but it would also compromise the story’s only interesting material.

If the subject matter were exploited to its fullest, the author could mine a whole lot of comedy gold from this industry and subculture. Even the class struggle, as the uptown poor girl makes good, has a lot of potential for comedy. Everything that’s already there on the page could be used to create much more original, interesting, and funny situations. However, it settles for a pedestrian storyline about the lowly assistant who saves the day. The title implies that it’s most direct influence is That Girl, a show that left the airwaves 35 years ago — and yet, the bare bones of this plot could be a typical episode of that show. For everything that’s fresh and innovative, there’s an equal amount of derivative dreck. Concentrate on heightening the former, and it’ll eliminate (or at least conceal) the latter.

The other big problem is the characters. Admittedly, it’s a pilot, so in theory we’ll get to know them in time, but all we have here at the moment (with the possible exception of Emmy) are stereotypes. What differentiates these folks from the typical role of the “player” brother, the geeky love interest, the evil boss, or the selfish best friend? How can those stereotypes be turned on their ears, within the pilot, to make these characters necessary to the series instead of existing solely because the conventions of this kind of sitcom require a player, a geeky love interest, an evil boss, and a selfish best friend? Of the characters introduced, how important is each supporting player to the series? What roles will they play in Emmy’s life in the future? Will her parents help keep Emmy grounded in where she came from? Will her brother’s one-night-stands come back to haunt him? Since the characters themselves aren’t fully developed, neither is their importance in the series. This should be at least hinted at in the pilot.

Emmy is an interesting case, because she’s desperate for power in the industry, but she uses what power she gains to help others — which could lead to a very flawed, very interesting character arc. How long will she continue helping others before she’s absorbed in this world of power and turns into Chloe or Veronica? Will she always stay true to herself, and if so, how hard a struggle will it be? This is the kind of interesting throughline that could carry the weight of a series, and it should be used to greater effect in the pilot so that we fully understand the premise of the show

As it stands now, the premise (and to that end, the franchise) remains unclear. Will this be Emmy struggling week after week, under the thumb of jealous Chloe? Will she always save the day? Or is this a show about Emmy’s whirlwind rise to the top of the modeling game? I think ideas for future episodes could be drawn naturally from the life the author has established for Emmy, but it remains to be seen what this show is actually about. Answer that — and the 10,000 other questions I’ve raised — and the pilot could be refined to at least hint at this information, to keep an audience coming back week after week.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:07 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 6, 2006

Palm Pilot

Author: Craig Schwartz
Genre: Comedy
Storyline: 3
Dialogue: 4
Characterization: 3
Writer’s Potential: 4

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

After touching a power line, a talentless artist discovers his hand has a mind of its own.

Synopsis:

Gardener NORMAN NELSON has a rough life: his girlfriend, KATE, just left him; he wishes he could live his dream as a topiary sculptor but is deprived by his “artist” boss, SOSUMI SUKI, who feels Norman has no talent (and is correct); and he recently enraged wealthy clientele, MRS. LIPTON and her gorgeous daughter GISELLE, by inadvertently insulted both of them while trying to kill a wasp. Adding insult to injury (literally), he chases a wasp to a nearby power-line, swats at it, and is electrocuted.

He’s met at the hospital by his good friend ALLIE, who is told by doctors that Norman will recover but his hand will have to be amputated. However, the next morning, Norman awakens to find his hand totally regenerated — except for one problem: the hand has a mind of its own and is no longer controlled in any way by Norman. At first, he doesn’t even notice. Then, he tries to ignore it. Later, he threatens it and attempts to cut it off, but the hand stops him. Having been fired from his job, Allie helps him get freelance gardening work; while on the job, Norman sneaks back into the Lipton compound to take a sneak-peak at Sosumi’s entry in a topiary contest. The hand, to his surprise, shapes Sosumi’s design into Norman’s only good design. The Liptons are stunned. Mrs. Lipton reacts by trying to seduce Norman, who agrees only because it will help his career; angered by Norman “stealing” his career, Sosumi enlists the aid of Giselle to destroy Norman. If Mrs. Lipton catches Norman and Giselle in a compromising position, she’ll ruin Norman.

However, the hand has plans of its own. It notices a mutual attraction between Norman and Allie, and it agrees to help Norman make a move on her, by redecorating his disgusting apartment, dressing him nicely, styling his hair, and performing various romantic acts (such as leaving Allie a note that quotes her favorite Shakespeare sonnet, and buying her flowers) while oblivious Norman tries to hook up with beautiful Giselle and avoid Mrs. Lipton. Soon, Norman takes Allie on a date. Thanks to the hand, they have a nice evening. It’s nearly ruined by Giselle showing up drunk at Norman’s apartment, but the hand once again saves the day.

Norman wins the big topiary contest thanks to strings pulled by Mrs. Lipton. At the garden party exhibiting the topiaries, Giselle comes on to Norman right in front of Allie, who storms off violently. An art dealer shows interest in Norman’s work and asks for more, so the hand gets to work creating “sudden” art, by throwing around hors d’oeuvres, champagne, and punch, creating stains that look like objects or animals. When Mrs. Lipton witnesses yet another come-on from Giselle, she’s fit to be tied, until the hand plays a beautiful piece on the piano that reminds her of how much she loves her husband. She forces Norman to craft an ice sculpture for the partygoers, and if he doesn’t he’ll be cast out of high society forever. Norman decides Allie is more important than material success, so he runs off to find and tell her this realization. She refuses to see him, and after trying to track her down at her various haunts, he attempts suicide by leaping from the roof of his apartment. But Allie has had a change of heart, so she arrives at the apartment just as he’s on the roof. The hand tries so hard to stop him that he grabs Norman’s cat. Norman won’t kill himself if it means the cat has to die, too, but when he hears Allie, Norman accidentally drops it onto a power line.

While Allie calls for help, Norman climbs up to rescue the cat and is electrocuted again. He thinks the hand is “dead” and mourns for it, but it returns to life, and they live happily ever after.

Comments:

Hands down (no pun intended, I swear), the biggest problem in this script is a lack of structure. It may sound somewhat like a plot that flows from point A to B (and so on), but there’s no momentum. It just rambles, with nothing in the way of a defined three-act structure or story arc. Essentially, Norman is given no real challenges in the script. He has three woman practically begging to sleep with him. He just ambles from scene to scene, interacting with other characters without much real conflict. There’s no jeopardy, and on the occasions where there could be, the hand saves the day, so there’s never anything at stake.

What little story there is revolves around Norman being incompetent until he gets this “magic” hand that puts him on Easy Street. So what would happen if, say, the hand stopped working? He has to go impress the social elite with his topiary skills or ice-sculpturing skills, but for some reason the hand has crapped out on him. This is pretty much the major Act 3 turning point in every movie that falls under the category of “freak accident leaves protagonist with super power that helps him achieve success,” so it’s not exactly original, but at least something happens to give the story some variety and stakes.

That said, most of the conflict in each scene arises between the hand trying to do things Norman doesn’t want it to do. For the most part, this development evaporates as soon as Norman agrees to let the hand help him impress Allie. Instead of Norman being a sad-sack loser who fails at everything, what would happen if he actually were pretty well put together? Good job, nice girlfriend, comfortable home life, but it’s all turned upside-down and nearly destroyed by a hand with a mind of its own, like the romantic-comedy version of The Hand (1981) or Idle Hands (1999).

The structure/story problems aren’t helped by the poor characterizations. No physical description is ever given of Norman Nelson. At first it seems like a minor technical problem that wouldn’t matter, in the long run, it makes it really difficult to picture him. How old is he? What’s his background? Why does he have such a strong desire to trim topiary sculptures despite his clear lack of talent? This last is probably his most interesting character trait, but it’s never explored or explained; it’s just a fact of his life. Insight into his drive to pursue this obscure art form would not only strengthen his character; chances are, it will strengthen the plot by giving him goals.

The supporting characters are all flat, as well. They serve as poorly defined foils for the wacky antics of Norman and his magic hand. What’s Allie’s story? Why is she into this loser? What has driven Mr. and Mrs. Lipton so far apart that they barely recognize each other at parties? What has driven Giselle to alcoholism? Why should we care about any of these people and their problems? The screenplay doesn’t present any of these as problems, but if they were — and were actually treated in a way that’s important to the story — it would go a long way toward bringing the characters to life.

The dialogue is the biggest strength, but even it isn’t terribly funny. It contributes to the overall rambling feel, since individual scenes are as unstructured as the whole script. They talk a lot, but they rarely say anything interesting, insightful, or even relevant to the plot (what little there is). Add to that endless scenes in which Norman, alone, holds conversations with his hand, and the bad/pointless stretches of dialogue far outweigh the occasional wit.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 4:59 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 15, 2006

Heaven’s Mandate

Author: Boris Layupan
Genre: Action/Martial-Arts Epic
Storyline: 3
Dialogue: 2
Characterization: 2
Writer’s Potential: 2

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

A spiritual nun’s journey leads her to become embroiled in an imperial revolution.

Synopsis:

Six-year-old CHING and her family of peasant farmers — along with the rest of their village — are taken prisoner by a Germanic tribe led by LO. Soon after, a half-Turkish half-Iranian warrior named AN LUSHAN leads his soldiers in an assault on the camp, freeing the peasants. Ching’s father sends her into a Buddhist convent, where she learns spiritual enlightenment and swordfighting. When she’s 21, ABBESS YU (her spiritual leader) sends Ching on a quest with another young nun, SENG. Yu gives Ching a sword called the Heavenglaive, which legend says will be incredibly powerful in the hands of the right person — only rivaled by its “brother” sword, the Dragonrill.

Ching and Seng set about on their journey. On their way, they run across Ching’s village and find that her family has died, the victim of overtaxation. She swears to avenge her family’s death. Meanwhile, in a capital city called Luoyang, a woman in her 30s named KEUI-FEI practices with the Dragonrill sword. She is EMPEROR LI LONGJI’s lady — the woman behind the man. He doesn’t make decisions or have opinions — everything he says or does is filtered through her, and she uses this to her advantage.

Ching and Seng arrive at the aftermath of a battle. They meet with an older An Lushan, who rejects them as some sort of joke the Shaolin monks are playing on him. He does battle with Ching, who matches him. It ends in a stalemate, and he acknowledges her skill and allows her presence. Lushan leads his men — accompanied by Ching and Seng — to a mountain pass blocked by Chinese military. Baffled, unable to figure out a way around, Lushan’s angry, until Ching and Seng show him a smaller pass they used earlier.

The following day, Ching and Seng save the day once again, helping Lushan’s forces past a river. He reveals his intentions to go to Luoyang and do away with the emperor. They take the city, then the palace. Longji and Keui-fei are about to make their escape when Ching approaches them with the Heavenglaive. Keui-fei gets Longji out of there, then battles Ching with her Dragonrill. It’s another draw, and Keui-fei leaves before more soldiers can take her out. Lushan takes his seat at the Emperor’s throne. Ching accosts her about soldiers out raping and pillaging in the city. Lushan is unconcerned; he has to plan to continue on to the country’s capital, Chang’an. Chang’an is exactly where Longji, Keui-fei, and many of the imperial ministers have fled to. They prepare a counterattack.

Lushan learns that much of the population hasn’t registered for taxation. He announces that swift punishments will come to those who don’t register. Ching looks on, disappointed. That evening, Lushan and the soldiers celebrate. Ching is unhappy. She takes her grievances to Lushan, and they sleep together. The next morning, Ching is horrified for defying her vows. Lushan decides to distribute grain at lower prices instead of taxing citizens.

In Chang’an, Longji is disappointed to discover that most of the province supports Lushan. They enlist Lo and his Germanic warriors to fight Lushan’s forces. He agrees, noting they have an old score to settle. After doing a lot of good works in Luoyang, Ching and Seng walk through the garden. They’re attacked by Longji’s men; Seng is killed, and Ching is kidnapped and taken back to Chang’an. Keui-fei tries to enlist Ching’s aid on Longji’s side. She refuses. Later, Longji has Ching taken to his chamber to ask why so many are in support of Lushan and not Longji.

Lushan and Lo do battle; Lushan’s side wins and proceeds on toward Chang’an. When Keui-fei sees the influence Ching is having over Longji and his ruling, she tries to have her killed. Longji stops her. Lushan and his warriors strategize their attack on Chang’an. Keui-fei wants Longji to flee to Sichuan, insisting they execute Ching before they leave. Longji refuses, saying Ching should come with them. Keui-fei and Ching do battle with their respective mystical swords; Keui-fei wins, leaving Ching to die. Lushan arrives just a moment too late.

Six years later, return to devastate Luoyang. Apparently they squashed Lushan’s rebellion. Longji insists they will rebuild China.

Comments:

No characters. No defined personalities, no real character-based conflicts, ham-fisted and cliché-ridden dialogue — all of this made this script an exceptionally tough and lifeless read. What conflicts exist (usually contrived clichés) are settled by the sword, but these action sequences are more tedious than exciting because the author never builds up a level of concern over the characters or jeopardy over what happens. Ching is arguably the main character, and her death should be the most devastating moment in the screenplay, but the author never establishes any kind of characterization, so the death just feels like another hollow plot device.

On the subject of hollow plot devices, the story never takes off. Part of it can be blamed on the lack of interesting characters — nobody seems to have any kind of motivation or clear agendas to do the things they do. Why does An Lushan have such a strong desire to annihilate the emperor? Even before that, why does he disrupt the Germanic tribe’s kidnapping of peasants? The big question for not just Lushan but every character in this script is a big fat “why?!” The only character who comes close to having any kind of motivation is Ching, who is angered over the death of her family. To a lesser extent, Keui-fei’s desire to murder Ching seems decently motivated.

These characters have room for complexities that go untapped: Why do An and Lushan fall in love? It’s the least convincing romance I’ve ever read on paper. What compels them? Why is Keui-fei so obsessed with being a Machiavellian puppeteer of the emperor? What, exactly, is she getting out of it? Is she the sole cause of Longji’s poor ruling? To that end, why does Longji allow her to call the shots? What is it about her that’s so special to him? Why can’t he see through her? On a general level, what’s the point of Lo’s story? He starts the story, disappears for 60 pages, and returns to get killed almost immediately? I’ve never heard of roaming bands of Germanic tribes living in ancient China, so that was an interesting detail, but it amounts to nothing more than that.

Without any sort of motivation for any of the actions, it’s exceptionally difficult to gain momentum in the story. The structure feels weak as a result — there are no clear act breaks, only the vaguest notion of plot points, and nothing resembling arcs. Much of what could be a story arc — Lushan’s rise from successful, supported empire-usurper to utter failure — is eliminated in an abrupt flash-forward in the last few pages. It’s kind of astounding how little this feels like reading a dramatic work. Even with undeveloped characters, it doesn’t tell a compelling story.

Perhaps if the characters are fleshed out, there’s hope for this screenplay. Figure out who these people really are, create character arcs, figure out who the protagonist and antagonist are and clearly define those roles, and pick apart the bones of this story to create something that feels more structured, more interesting, and more entertaining.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 6:44 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 12, 2006

Whiskeytown (Rewrite)

Author: Craig Schwartz
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 8
Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

A traveling horse-trainer makes a stop in a small California town and discovers the son he abandoned 12 years earlier.

Synopsis:

In Whiskeytown, California, a man in his mid-30s named JOHN COMBER arrives with his assistant/girlfriend PAM and hosts a seminar on training horses not to fear loud noises (like firecrackers) or strange objects (like plastic bags). He catches the attention of an ATTRACTIVE WOMAN in the audience. That evening, he sleeps with a local waitress named CHARLOTTE. This prompts Pam to leave him, but not before trashing their motel room. She also takes their truck, his only form of transportation. He’s stuck at the Whiskeytown Lake Resort. He strikes up a friendship with the owner, an elderly gent named CHROME. They swap war stories and horse stories. Chrome takes care of his 12-year-old grandson, RYAN SMITH, who takes an unnatural shine to both John and his horse, Tommy. Lacking an assistant, John asks Ryan to help him with his next horse seminar. A horse enthusiast, Ryan loves the idea. Chrome isn’t so keen on it, however. He reluctantly allows it, however.

Later, Chrome explains Ryan’s story to John: his father knocked up Chrome’s daughter and disappeared. She raised Ryan by herself until he was about five or six, when she went out on Whiskeytown Lake and either committed suicide or was the victim of a fatal boating accident. Since then, Chrome has raised Ryan as his own son. After seeing a picture of Chrome’s daughter, John realizes something awful: he fathered Ryan. Although he has never been to Whiskeytown, he met her in nearby Anderson, they had a few nice nights together, and he moved on. This has been a pattern for most of John’s life.

Once John realizes he is Ryan’s father, he has one goal in mind: he wants to buy a truck from a man named ALBERT and get out of town. He also distances himself from Ryan, after agreeing to teach the boy how to ride. John explains the situation to Charlotte and wonders what he should do. Charlotte thinks he should at least tell Chrome and perhaps figure out a plan to tell Ryan. John believes that’s easier said than done, since Chrome has already told him he has a lot of anger directed at the anonymous father. He does tell Chrome, though, and it goes about as well as he expects: Chrome gets so angry, he has a minor heart-attack.

While hospitalized, Chrome insists that Ryan stay with his friend ERNEST and his family, rather than with John (who until now had been bonding quite well with both Ryan and Chrome). John discovers not only has Albert taken his truck on a trip — it’s broken down. He’s still stuck in Whiskeytown. He tries to make things right with Chrome and fails. Ryan sneaks away from Ernest’s house and begs John to teach him how to ride. John finally agrees, and has a nice day bonding with his son. The next day, Albert returns with his truck. Chrome is released from the hospital. Charlotte agrees to take four months off from college to be John’s assistant. But John’s not so sure he’s going to leave so quickly. Chrome and Ryan agree to take John out to the middle of the lake to see the old Whiskeytown, which was sunk years ago when the government flooded the valley.

Comments:

First thing, I’d like to address the confusion regarding my earlier comments on protagonist/antagonist: some feel like “protagonist” is synonymous with the main character, with the person whose story and character we’re most aligned with throughout the narrative. I don’t happen to agree with that, and I’ve always been taught (and felt personally) that it’s a little more complicated than that. The protagonist doesn’t always have to be the central character. It could, for example, be a more minor (but essential, of course) character like Ryan, Charlotte, or Chrome. Similarly, the antagonist can be the main character. Their role in the story is defined by their behavior; whether or not they are treated as a primary or secondary character is the author’s choice.

An example I like to use is Die Hard. You could argue John McClane is the protagonist, and that the clear goal that carries him through the story is the desire to stop the terrorists and save his wife. But that’s a reactive goal, not something he’s setting out to do at the beginning of the movie. Hans Gruber is the one with the clear-cut goal: taking over the building under the guise of a terrorist attack that is, in fact, a robbery. His story is the engine that really drives the plot, not McClane’s. Everything McClane does after the terrorist attack is designed to counter and defeat Gruber’s actions. He’s the main character, we’re rooting for him, but he’s consistently portrayed as the antagonist. Gruber, meanwhile, is evil, we want him defeated, but he’s the one with the goal that sets the story in motion and constantly propels it forward.

In Whiskeytown, I define Ryan as the protagonist and John as the antagonist. Sure, John owns the story; that’s as it should be, since he’s the one with the significant character arc. However, Ryan is the one with the big goals: he wants to learn horses, he wants to bond with John, and he’ll defy everyone around him to achieve his goals. With the exception of his desire to leave town (which isn’t what the story is about), John’s goals are in reaction to Ryan, especially once he realizes Ryan is his own son. He’s the one who’s countering each of Ryan’s attempts to bond with him. This is what I meant in my earlier comments about recognizing the roles of John and Ryan in the drama, because I felt too much emphasis was placed on Chrome as antagonist in order to define John as the protagonist. Ryan doesn’t need — and shouldn’t have — more focus in the story to make him the protagonist.

I wanted to clarify what I was trying to say, so I hope it makes sense, even if you disagree with the way I define protagonist and antagonist. I apologize for any confusion. However, I guess I think it’s a semantics argument, since the author agreed with part of what I said and allowed John to think more often in terms of Ryan than Chrome in this rewrite. I liked those changes and felt they went a long way toward showing that John really does care about Ryan., even though he still intends to leave (that’s another element that was strengthened in this revision). The added scene detailing Ryan’s “esecape” from Ernest’s house was a nice slice of character insight for all three — Ryan, Ernest, and his mother — and does a nice job of showing the intensity of Ryan’s desire to be with John.

I don’t think my original criticism — that John and Chrome’s conflict should be de-emphasized in favor of strengthening the Ryan and John relationship — still stands. This is in part because of the changes that have been made to the third act, but mostly a result of a fresh read. The author goes a long way toward showing John and Ryan’s rocky, complex bonding process; adding more to what’s there may just be overkill. Since this revision wasn’t significant in the sense of gutting the story and starting from scratch, everything that I liked about it the first time remains: great dialogue, well-defined characters, sense of place, et al. In fact, though the revisions may seem minor, they have a significant impact on the story. It feels tighter and more focused. Based on this rewrite, nothing really jumps out at me as problematic. It’s a very strong effort.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 3:32 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 10, 2006

Sons of Illusion

Author: Adriana Cepeda
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 5
Dialogue: 5
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 5

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

Amid a bloody political riot in Bogotá, a young boy searches for his father.

Synopsis:

In present-day Colombia, ANGELICA (a 19-year-old painter) searches through her mother’s old junk until she finds a small canvas rendering pre-1948 Bogotá. She copies the painting onto a huge canvas, then tells her mother, NIXA, that she intends to visit her grandfather, MARCO LEON. Nixa doesn’t want her to see him at all, and the two have a heated argument. In the end, Angelica goes to visit Marco. On her way, she discusses city violence with a TAXI DRIVER, who complains that many cab drivers are killed so their cars can be stolen. At Marco’s house, the old man tells Angelica the story of something that happened to him as a child.

April 1948. 10-year-old Marco has a grand old time, playing with his father RAFAEL; his four-year-old sister, JUANITA; and his eight-year-old brother, LUCIANO. Out on the streets of Bogotá, it becomes clear that political rivalries are heated. Children scream hateful slurs against children from families of the opposing party. While out on the town, Rafael explains why his family are liberals and that the conservatives have a simple agenda: to wipe out liberals. The attend a liberal political rally hosted by presidential candidate GAITAN. He gives a speech declaring that only the liberal party can bring peace to the common man.

Later, Marco plays football with his friend CRISTOBAL and a bully named FRANCISCO, who pounds Marco. Rafael chastises Marco, saying he should fight back. That night, Rafael fights with Marco’s mother, ELENA, when she denies him sex (not for the first time, it’s implied). The following day, with Rafael in close proximity, Gaitan is gunned down, prompting a bloody riot, with liberals shooting at anyone resembling a conservative (including soldiers from the current conservative government), and soldiers trying to contain the city.

In the midst of this, Marco runs off into the violence — with Luciano tagging along, unknown to Marco at first — to find his missing father. Luciano is nearly shot by a liberal thinking his blue sweater indicates that he supports the conservative party; Luciano takes off the sweater. Elena tries to go after her boys, but the violence is nearly too much for her. When she sees a woman raped by escaped prisoners, she goes home.

Marco and Luciano make it to their father’s office. His secretary, HILMA, and a worker named IGNACIO are there, but Rafael is nowhere to be found. Liberal militants bust into the office, having word that it’s owned by a conservative. Hilma explains the misunderstanding, and the liberals leave peacefully. Ignacio wants to leave, so he decides he’ll escort Marco and Luciano back home. Almost immediately after leaving the building, Ignacio is gunned down. They rush into a building run by a woman named LUZ, who agrees to help them. She takes them up to her rooftop, where she believes they’ll both be safe. On the roof, they meet a wild, friendly old man named ASCLEPIADES, who has a winged bicycle. He agrees to give Marco and Luciano a ride to another rooftop. In mid-air, one of his bicycle’s wings is shot, and it spills onto a nearby rooftop, crushing Luciano’s leg. They are taken in by a restaurateur, ENRIQUE, and his wife, CECI. They tend to Luciano but can’t do much without medical care. Enrique knows Rafael, knows where he intended to go, but refuses to tell Marco because it’s too dangerous.

Mewanwhile, a young FIDEL CASTRO worries about the escalating violence. ADAN ARIAGA plots a coup d’etat that never gets off the ground.

The next morning, Marco detaches the wings from Asclepiades’s bicycle and steals it. He visits the nearby cemetery, sees bodies as far as the eye can see. Meanwhile, army soldiers bust into Enrique’s restaurtant and agree to take Luciano to a hospital. Marco runs into a young popcorn salesman who says he thinks he’s seen Rafael going into a nearby red building. Marco goes to the building and is greeted by a SCANTILY CLAD WOMAN, who offers to bring him in to her party. She gets him drunk. He shares his first kiss with a girl, a 14-year-old named SOFIA, who thinks he’s cute. Sofia says that perhaps Rafael was there: a man came in hiding from the army, then soldiers busted in and took him prisoner.

Marco sneaks into an army building and into the prisoner. He searches cells for Rafael but doesn’t find him. He gives bread to an OLD WOMAN in one of the cells. Marco slips on a wet staircase and awakens in a cell, taunted by three older prisoners who think he’s a rich kid. They want to steal his clothes. The Old Woman kicks him a gun that she has concealed under her dress. He shoots, hitting the wall and ceiling before finally hitting one of the Prisoners’ legs. When the Soldiers find them, the Prisoner has taken the gun from Marco and has it aimed at the boy’s head. They take the Prisoner away, and let Marco go, realizing they had thrown him into the cell in error.

Marco asks them for help in finding his father. They search the records but find he has not been arrested. Marco asks to see a list of the dead, but the Soldiers say they don’t even have a list — there’s just too many. Disappointed, Marco leaves with an army escort. They want to take him home, but he insists on going to the Presidential palace. For some reason, they agree to this and drop him off there. Marco tries to get into the palace but is refused. That night, he runs through the streets of Bogotá, knocking on doors, trying desperately to find Rafael. He falls asleep in an abandoned apartment building.

The next morning, in a public park, Asclepiades finds Marco and his bicycle. Together, they go to the central hospital to find Rafael. Instead, they find Luciano. All three decide to go back to the Leons’ apartment, but Asclepiades leaves them at the entrance. Marco and Luciano find the apartment ransacked, and Elena gutted. She dies just after their arrival, pleading for them to take care of their sister. Luciano finds Juanita locked in a closet. The three children decide to simply wait in the apartment for Rafael to return. Three days later, they see Asclepiades fly by on his bicycle. He agrees to fly them around, dropping notes to Rafael all over Bogotá.

Meanwhile, American GENERAL MARSHALL arrives at a school to take part in a Pan-American conference, and a few days later, the CIA DIRECTOR ROSCOE HILLENKOETTER announces to the House of Representatives that their investigation inicates Gaitan was assassinated by one man, JUAN ROA. In the present, Angelica and aged Marco discuss possible conspiracies, including GABRIEL GARCÍA MÂRQUEZ witnessing a possible CIA agent across the street while the assassination took place.

In 1948, martial law is lifted and the government proclaims that behavior has returned to normal. Grandmother Sol arrives back at the Leon apartment. Word has spread about secret army prisons holding prisoners off the record. Sol agrees to take Marco to the army building to find if Rafael is actually there. Luciano and Juanita sneak out and follow them, so the quartet goes together. They are denied information by an army officer. Marco sneaks back into the prison to find his father. He asks the Old Woman in the cell where the secret prisoners are kept. She points, and he finds Rafael. Rafael refuses to tell him why they’ve imprisoned him or whether or not he had anything to do with the assassination. When Soldiers arrive to take Marco away, Rafael denies he even has a son. Juanita and Luciano insist on going to find Elena’s body at the cemetery. Marco reluctantly agrees, and he takes a beautiful white flower to one of the pits where all the unnamed bodies have been buried.

In the present, Angelica shows Marco an article she has found on the Internet, showing that a 100-year-old prisoner named Rafael was finally released. Marco goes to see his father, for the first time in nearly 60 years.

Comments:

At its core, a desperate son searching for his father in war-torn Bogotá is a powerful story. It also sheds light on an event in Colombian history that is, perhaps, not as well-known or well-remembered in the United States. The backdrop, and the core story of Marco’s search, makes for fascinating material.

However, certain narrative forces work against this story. First and foremost, the dialogue is both expository and exceptionally melodramatic. It doesn’t serve the characters well by establishing them, the rhythms of their speech, the words they use. Much of the time, the children don’t sound like children, and nearly all of the characters speak in heightened clichés, fraught with melodrama.

With this in mind, many scenes veer away from the main story of Marco and the Leon family, concentrating instead on the political drama unfolding around them. There aren’t enough of these scenes to make a compelling argument for this political intrigue as a worthwhile subplot, and frankly, whenever the action moves away from Marco’s story, the narrative momentum just dies. There’s an urgency to his struggle, and the danger that surrounds him, that simply isn’t present in these political scenes. Part of the reason for this is that, like the melodramatic main characters, these real-life political figures exist solely to explain up-to-the-minute details of what’s happening. They’re not authentic characters, and they contribute nothing to the story that a background radio broadcast or idle gossip couldn’t also establish.

The political drama reaches its ludicrous height when modern-day Marco and granddaughter Angelica discuss the many conspiracy theories, comparing Gaitan’s assassination to the Kennedy assassination. It’s all true information, but it contributes nothing to the story. If the author wants to delve into the conspiracy, it could easily be told like Oliver Stone’s JFK, perhaps with an older Marco still searching for his imprisoned father and gradually uncovering and piecing together one or many possible conspiracies, even heightening the drama by implying perhaps Rafael was personally involved in the conspiracy. That’s not the story that’s being told here, so the conspiracy stuff flies out of left field and just feels ridiculous.

The same could be said of Asclepiades and his magic flying bicycle. This may fall into the realm of “magical realism,” but the tone would be more consistent if there were more incidents of surrealism or symbolic imagery. Like the political intrigue, there’s simply not enough of it to make it anything more than a distraction from the tragic story of the Leons. Every distraction from their story weakens it. (While Asclepiades and the bicycle do fall into the main plot, the sheer goofiness of it is incredibly distracting.) In addition, I racked my brain and could neither figure out what the character or his bicycle even symbolized nor why he has an ancient Greek name.

Finally, the present-day framing device contributes nothing to the overall story. Angelica’s conflict with her mother is bland (and doesn’t amount to anything, since Angelica’s in the script all of 10 pages), Marco recalling the events in 1948 doesn’t add up to much, and the reunion with his father could be poignant but is still, in the end, unnecessary.

With more natural dialogue and fewer distractions from the simple but powerful story it wants to tell, Sons of Illusion could be a real winner.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 1:14 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 7, 2006

Whiskeytown

Author: Craig Schwartz
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 7
Characterization: 8
Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

A traveling horse-trainer makes a stop in a small California town and discovers the son he abandoned 12 years earlier.

Synopsis:

In Whiskeytown, California, a man in his mid-30s named JOHN COMBER arrives with his assistant/girlfriend PAM and hosts a seminar on training horses not to fear loud noises (like firecrackers) or strange objects (like plastic bags). He catches the attention of an ATTRACTIVE WOMAN in the audience. That evening, he sleeps with a local waitress named CHARLOTTE. This prompts Pam to leave him, but not before trashing their motel room. She also takes their truck, his only form of transportation. He’s stuck at the Whiskeytown Lake Resort. He strikes up a friendship with the owner, an elderly gent named CHROME. They swap war stories and horse stories. Chrome takes care of his 12-year-old grandson, RYAN SMITH, who takes an unnatural shine to both John and his horse, Tommy. Lacking an assistant, John asks Ryan to help him with his next horse seminar. A horse enthusiast, Ryan loves the idea. Chrome isn’t so keen on it, however. He reluctantly allows it, however.

Later, Chrome explains Ryan’s story to John: his father knocked up Chrome’s daughter and disappeared. She raised Ryan by herself until he was about five or six, when she went out on Whiskeytown Lake and either committed suicide or was the victim of a fatal boating accident. Since then, Chrome has raised Ryan as his own son. After seeing a picture of Chrome’s daughter, John realizes something awful: he fathered Ryan. Although he has never been to Whiskeytown, he met her in nearby Anderson, they had a few nice nights together, and he moved on. This has been a pattern for most of John’s life.

Once John realizes he is Ryan’s father, he has one goal in mind: he wants to buy a truck from a man named ALBERT and get out of town. He also distances himself from Ryan, after agreeing to teach the boy how to ride. John explains the situation to Charlotte and wonders what he should do. Charlotte thinks he should at least tell Chrome and perhaps figure out a plan to tell Ryan. John believes that’s easier said than done, since Chrome has already told him he has a lot of anger directed at the anonymous father. He does tell Chrome, though, and it goes about as well as he expects: Chrome gets so angry, he has a minor heart-attack.

While hospitalized, Chrome insists that Ryan stay with his friend ERNEST and his family, rather than with John (who until now had been bonding quite well with both Ryan and Chrome). John discovers not only has Albert taken his truck on a trip — it’s broken down. He’s still stuck in Whiskeytown. He tries to make things right with Chrome and fails. Ryan sneaks away from Ernest’s house and begs John to teach him how to ride. John finally agrees, and has a nice day bonding with his son. The next day, Albert returns with his truck. Chrome is released from the hospital. Charlotte agrees to take four months off from college to be John’s assistant. But John’s not so sure he’s going to leave so quickly. Chrome and Ryan agree to take John out to the middle of the lake to see the old Whiskeytown, which was sunk years ago when the government flooded the valley.

Comments:

This screenplay is loaded with interesting, well-drawn characters. The author does a very good job of revealing individual personalities through dialogue and detailed action. It brings them to life. It also has a nice, strong sense of place. Scenes and character relationships are loaded with conflict, both internal and external. There’s not much to complain about here, but the story does have a few issues. It doesn’t feel like John and Ryan really get to bond as much as they could. As written, it appears the author intended John to be the protagonist and Chrome the antagonist. It seems more logical that Ryan, innocently hero-worshipping a man he never knows is his father, be the protagonist. John, who discovers his role in conceiving the child early on, is the antagonist in two ways: first, he starts to rebuff Ryan’s desire to learn horse-riding; second, he has no interest in being Ryan’s father. He’s flawed and sympathetic, and the story should still revolve around him and be told from his perspective, but most of his behavior through the screenplay is antagonistic. The author should reshape the dynamic between John and Ryan to fit this mold, concentrating less on the conflict with Chrome and more on the conflict generated by the complicated relationship between John and Ryan. Other than this, the story works well as it stands.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 4:09 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 17, 2006

Black’s Sonata

Author: David Mango
Genre: Comedy-drama
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 8
Characterization: 9
Writer’s Potential: 8

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Recommend

Logline:

Against the wishes of his heavy-metal family, a virtuoso musician gets a seat in the New York Philharmonic.

Synopsis:

TREVOR BLACK, a 17-year-old high school dropout from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood, plays like a guitar god in a heavy-metal band called Black Plague. His father, FRANK, and older brother, RANDY, back him up on drums and bass. They’re truly terrible — Trevor is the only thing makes the band worthy. This is recognized by DON, the owner of two bars in Brooklyn. He books them on a three-month contract, four nights a week alternating between his bars. At an after-gig party at their house, mopey Trevor sneaks off with an old violin. He practices in an abandoned house next door. Frank sends Randy looking for Trevor; Randy finds him and discourages him from the violin. They get into a fistfight, and Trevor runs off.

On Park Avenue the next morning, Trevor ambushes MAESTRO LUCIEN ZALEM’s limousine. He’s the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and it’s made clear that Trevor has been begging him — writing letters, following him around, etc. — for a very long time. He wants an audition. Zalem breezes past him, and his limo driver threatens Trevor. Intercutting between that evening’s Philharmonic performance and Frank quitting his tattoo-artist job (greeted with gentle mockery from the owner) and yet another party at the Black house, it becomes clear that Frank has forced this unsuccessful heavy-metal lifestyle on his children from birth. Trevor has become rebellious in the ultimate way — by secretly training himself as a virtuoso classical violinist. Randy, meanwhile, has adopted a codependent mentality, making sure Frank doesn’t die when he passes out for the night, cleaning up the party, etc.

After the Philharmonic performance, Trevor chases Zalem’s limo for several blocks. He sees it stop at a fancy French restaurant. He tries to get in, but the Maitre D’ has him thrown out. Trevor sneaks in through the back entrance, making his way unnoticed through the kitchen with his violinist. He matches the restaurant’s house violinist note for note as he makes his way to a table where Zalem sits with first-chair violinist SERGEI KOLESNIKOV. He plays a beautiful sonata. Zalem is shocked but pleased, and Kolesnikov is instantly jealous. Zalem finally grants Trevor his audition, for the following morning.

Trevor sneaks back home and, in an effort to make himself look neater, cuts his long “heavy-metal” hair. Frank wakes up and is horrified by the new look. Frank also sees the violin, and they get into another argument. Frank throws Trevor out of the house and the band, and Trevor gladly leaves. A disappointed Randy realizes it won’t be easy to find a replacement guitarist. Trevor plays in subways and on streetcorners for spare change. He makes enough to buy a cheap suit from a thrift store, which he wears to the audition the next morning.

At the audition, Trevor meets Zalem’s intern, HANAKO GOTO, a beautiful 21-year-old violinist. Zalem has Trevor run through basic stuff: scales, arpeggios, and a piece of Zalem’s choosing (from memory). Finally, Zalem gives Trevor a sight-reading audition. Trevor asks what the piece is, Zalem tells him; Trevor plays a different piece from what’s written on the sheet music. Zalem realizes Trevor can’t read music, but he’s such a great violinist he’s willing to give Trevor another shot in two weeks. He tells Hanako to spend that time teaching Trevor to read music. Meanwhile, Frank and Randy put up fliers for a new guitarist.

KAWA AZUMA, an arrogant Julliard violinist, leads a quartet through Hanako’s graduate performance selection. Trevor listens to them play and gets into an argument over Kawa’s perception of the piece. They instantly hate each other. Hanako yells at Trevor for interfering. They do their music-reading lesson, and Trevor is frustrated at his inability to read the staff and play flawlessly. After Trevor leaves, Kawa yells at Hanako about him, ends up giving her a black eye. Trevor spends the night in a subway station, practicing music-reading as much as he can. He improves steadily.

Several days later, their practice room is taken, so Hanako sneaks Trevor into an old music archive in the Philharmonic building. Hanako feels Trevor has mastered music reading. She asks him how he can play so beautifully, and he explains — disappointed to realize he’s using his father’s phrase — that she has to feel it. He gives Hanako a few puffs on a joint to relax her. He takes Hanako to Brooklyn, to an old heavy-metal bar in his neighborhood. He gets her some liquor and shows her the raw, wild emotion of the bands. They’re not great musicians, but they have energy and passion — the one thing her technically flawless violin playing needs.

Hanako sneaks Trevor back into her dorm at Julliard, where she’s accosted by Kawa. Trevor takes the opportunity to pound Kawa’s face. Trevor and Hanako kiss — Hanako’s first. The following morning, Trevor arrives for his second audition. The orchestra practices, so he’s forced to wait. Kolesnikov can’t play the piece, which he blames on the percussion. Zalem gives Trevor his audition, in which Trevor is asked to sight-read the second violin part of the same piece Kolesnikov had trouble with. Trevor plays it flawlessly; Zalem offers him a seat in the orchestra.

Thrilled, Trevor runs off to Scarsdale to tell his mother, ZOE, who wants nothing to do with Trevor and wants him as far away from her house as possible — she has a new life, a new family. Depressed and dejected, Trevor mopes his way back to Manhattan. Meanwhile, Frank and Randy — after a series of unsuccessful auditions — have found a great guitarist. Unfortunately, he has a habit of urinating on the audience, which loses Black Plague their contract with Don. That night, Trevor arrives for his first Philharmonic rehearsal. He embarrasses himself by not knowing the protocol of where to sit, when to tune, etc. He also commits a faux pas by announcing that he can play a particular first-violin part when Kolesnikov has trouble. It angers both Zalem and Kolesnikov. Trevor complains to Hanako that he doesn’t feel like he fits in; Hanako tells him not let them intimidate him.

Twenty minutes before Trevor’s first performance with the Philharmonic, Randy tracks him down to announce that Frank’s in serious trouble — he was hospitalized after overdosing. After talking to the doctor and finding Frank’s in a coma he’ll probably come out of, Trevor and Randy go back home. Randy shows him a surprise gift from Frank — an electric violin, hand-built by Frank using Trevor’s guitar pickups. Touched, Trevor plugs it into an amplifier and plays around with it. Soon after, Frank awakens from his coma. Trevor and Randy are there, but they immediately get into an argument when Frank — initially proud of his son getting into the Philharmonic — learns that Trevor won’t have time for the band anymore.

Hanako performs her final exam; she plays brilliantly, perhaps as well as Trevor, thanks to his advice about playing emotionally. In the audience, her father — himself a famous San Francisco conductor — approves of her and her playing for the first time in her life. Thrilled, Hanako rushes off to Brooklyn to find Trevor. She also tells him that since she’s done with school, she’ll be leaving for San Francisco. When Hanako tells Zalem she’s leaving, Zalem is angered by the reviews of the preceding night’s awful show. He tells her Kolesnikov has announced he has carpal tunnel syndrome, and Zalem isn’t sure what to do: give a chance to this new violinist who’s brilliant, or allow Kolesnikov to continue embarrassing him. Hanako is, of course, in Trevor’s corner. Zalem has made his decision. When he asks Trevor about it, Trevor agrees — but under one condition. He wants to play Frank’s electric violin. Trevor tells Randy about visiting their mother, how she didn’t want anything to do with him, and how Frank (misguided as he is) really is a supportive father. Randy tricks Frank into going to Trevor’s concert that night. Trevor plays wildly, like a heavy-metal god in a concert-hall world. Zalem, Frank, and Randy are all proud of him. Critics rave, even Zoe is impressed when she sees it in the newspaper — but Trevor doesn’t bask in the success. He skips off to San Francisco to find Hanako. He convinces her to return to New York with him, and she agrees.

Comments:

The author does a surprisingly good job taking a pedestrian ragtag-underdog-gets-his-chance-for-legitimate-success story and making it work, mostly on the strength of its characters. All of these people are flawed, make mistakes — in short, they talk and behave like real people within the context of a story that’s been done over and over again. The author does a very good job of simultaneously exploiting and obscuring the formula. Because of that, it works like a charm — a commercial story told in a straightforward, believable way.

One main criticism: Kawa is just too mean, too irredeemable an asshole. Granted, he’s supposed to be, but where are the extra layers the author applies to the other characters? What makes him so arrogant, so condescending, so jealous? He almost seems desperate — as if this is the one and only thing he has going for him, and it horrifies him that anybody could possibly be better. A nice, tiny moment of empathy with him would go a long way toward making him more fully realized. I’m not talking about him rescuing a box of kittens from a runaway truck — just a small, quiet moment where we can see for ourselves either a moment where he’s not pure evil, or a moment that really shows us why he’s so unpleasant.

I also have a suggestion. Though I like the story as told, I wonder what would happen if Trevor left Frank and Randy behind forever. It starts out in a “hero’s journey” mold, with Trevor realizing there’s nothing left for him in Brooklyn, but there’s a solid arc where Trevor discovers the approval he longs for from his mother was never there, while Frank — despite his obsession with heavy metal — really supported and helped to develop Trevor’s musical instinct. What would happen if this were more of a “created family” situation, where people like Zalem, Kolesnikov, and Hanako start to play the roles of his “new” family in the orchestra? Zalem has a paternal quality to him, and Hanako (despite the romance) plays a Randy-esque supportive/adoring role. It could be interesting to see Trevor create this new family in Manhattan, but still build off of what’s already there in the script. If Randy and Frank show up in the third act, and Trevor realizes that this new group he strove so hard to create is pretty much the same support system he already had with his real family. Trevor’s character would go through the same basic emotional journey; it would just have a different spin on Trevor’s experiences in Manhattan.

The story is very well-told, so that isn’t really a complaint, like “this is how the story should be.” It’s a minor “what if…?” scenario that I thought about while reading it. It might improve the screenplay, but it’s not a necessary change to make it succeed. It already does.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 9:57 AM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 20, 2006

Friendly

Author: Craig Schwartz & Jacinthe Dessureault
Genre: Horror
Storyline: 8
Dialogue: 8
Characterization: 8
Writer’s Potential: 8

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Recommendation?

Recommend

Logline:

On their way to a wedding, a group of friends become infected with spores that slowly turn them into zombies.

Synopsis:

Six friends in their early 20s, on road trip from Albuquerque to Kingman, stop in a small desert town called Friendly when the driver, JAKE, thinks he hears a leak. Slacker stoner CODY plans to marry sensible girlfriend, KIRA; the wedding chapel is their ultimate destination. Unfortunately, there’s some tension: Jake used to date intellectual science queen LEE, but they broke up; they’re stuck together because Jake is Cody’s best friend, and Kira is Lee’s. Along for the ride are Jake’s sleazy stripper girlfriend, DIANE, and Lee’s athlete boyfriend STEVE. Jake and Lee don’t get along at all. Steve and Diane flirt constantly, increasing tension between all four of them. Even Cody and Kira have tension: his slacker ways interfere with her straight-arrow mentality.

On their way into Friendly, the group runs into a creepy OLD WOMAN and her equally creepy son, BOBBY JOHN; after first mistaking the group for “church folk” and then for Cub Scouts, the Old Woman gives directions and some insight onto the town-that-isn’t-quite-a-town. It seems, aside from an operating general store and a healthy Mormon church, there isn’t much more than a ghost town — or, as the operators of the general store (SHERMAN and JUDY, a friendly middle-aged couple) joke, a “Holy Ghost-town.” While the gang tries to buy beer at the store (unavailable in Friendly because of its Mormon influence), a blind Indian, LOMY, tells Lee that he’s cursed. She thinks he’s nuts. A local PREACHER and his assistant, SISTER RUTH, try to convince the gang to stay for services; the group leaves as soon as possible.

They make camp near the town, and Jake notices an abandoned mine in the distance. Jake, Diane, and Kira go to the mine; meanwhile, Cody, Lee, and Steve have found a silver trailer near their campsite. Music plays, but it seems abandoned. As the group in the trailer investigates, finding a lot of dust and a dead family, the group at the mine discover dust and a bunch of disgusting, tumor-like mushrooms. Investigating further, they find a dead den of Cub Scouts, covered in these mushrooms — dead except for one CRAZY CUB SCOUT, who pulls a gun on them, drags them back to the van, steals it, and drives away. Steve has been “infected” by whatever this stuff is, and he’s not doing well. Jake and Diane go for help back at the Old Woman’s house. In a murderous rage, she kills Diane and she and Bobby John both go after Jake. Meanwhile, Steve goes nuts and tries to kill everyone at the campsite. Lee whacks him with the tire-iron, while Jake accidentally forces Bobby John to kill his mother, then he impales Bobby John on a pitchfork. While escaping, he stumbles across the van.

Steve, tied up, regains consciousness. Lee starts punching him. He doesn’t understand why he’s tied up or why they’re all so angry and violent. Lee realizes Steve, whose nose was smashed by the tire iron, is no longer affected by whatever “spell” compelled him to try killing them. She thinks it’s pheromones — something about the dust they breathed in compels people to murder them. But why the mushroom-like spores and their airborne dust cause others to kill them when the dust itself is deadly? Answer: the spores don’t kill them — they turn them into zombies.

Jake returns with the van, and they start driving. They’re attacked by a hitchhiker they stop to help. He kills Steve, they kill the hitchhiker, but he’s done major damage to the van, rendering it almost inoperable. They’re near the town, so the go to the general store to call for help. They also try to cloak their scent, but they’re attacked by Lomy (whose blindness heightens his sense of smell) and his pet chihuahua. They kill the dog and keep Lomy out of the store. In the van, a zombified Steve comes back to life. The group gradually piece together that alcohol can stop and reverse the attacking dust. Since it’s a dry town, there’s only one place to get alcohol — wine at the church. Before they can go, they’re attacked by Sherman. Judy, meanwhile, tries to feed his leg to the chihuahua, but instead she’s killed by — the Crazy Cub Scout, who is now a full-on zombie. The group deals with Sherman in the store, then sneak off to the church. They ambush the Preacher, who tells them that their wine is non-alcoholic. Jake, having seen him drinking rum earlier, knows there’s booze somewhere. The only way to get it is to reveal themselves, and their scent, to the full congregation.

After he sees what their scent does to the congregation, he is fully cooperative in helping them not only get the booze, he supplies them with more guns and allows them to take his bus out of town. They just have to get there… Meanwhile, everyone who has died rises again as a zombie, Kira and Cody steal the one bottle of whiskey they have for the four of them, but they’re killed. Jake and Lee get it back and get on the bus, just as Jake succumbs to the black spores. It reverses the process and he returns to normal.

Comments:

This is a well-paced, well-structured take on the zombie movie. The dialogue is effective, with strong wit, nice character voice, and heightening tension without being overly expository. Steve and Diane could use a little work, though — it becomes pretty obvious that they’ll be the first victims based on their lack of depth. If they had more emphasis early on, their inevitable deaths would be more surprising and have more of an impact. Thanks mostly to the dialogue that really defines the strength of the Jake/Cody and Lee/Kira friendships, the betrayal of Cody and Kira comes out of left field, but it’s completely within their established characters. It works well.

I’ll say where I thought the story was going as it headed into the third act, because I think it could lead to something very interesting and effective in a rewrite. When they figured out the alcohol secret, they realized the church was the only place to get it, and they also realized they would have at least a hundred people willing to stop at nothing to murder them, I thought it’d be a bloodbath. That poses a really interesting moral question, dramatically: are the lives of these four people worth the slaughter of so many? Would the main characters be willing to sacrifice so many others to save themselves? If they did, how would they react to the aftermath of such atrocities?

Like the rest of the script, a development like that would turn aside a lot of the clichés of zombie movies — taking the common “let’s shoot everybody” ending and saying, “Yeah, but they aren’t shooting zombies — they’re shooting actual people to save themselves,” and then dealing with the consequences. It’s a kill-or-be-killed scenario, and it’s kind of a win-win situation: gore, violence, exciting gunfights — all leading to deeper questions about the morality of their actions. It also ties into the overall theme of being “saved.” What’s the price of being saved, and is it worth it?

Posted by D. B. Bates at 3:08 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 24, 2006

Wicked Wonderland

Author: Michael Sean Conley
Genre: Action
Storyline: 6
Dialogue: 6
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 6

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Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

A computer nerd retrieves a woman’s purse from a mugger and finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy to blackmail Hollywood celebrities.

Synopsis:

A car accident happens outside a diner in downtown L.A., grabbing the attention of the patrons — except for JIM, whose gaze is planted firmly on gorgeous RITA. He witnesses an Asian woman, KITTY, steal Rita’s purse. He chases her down an alley, is nearly stopped by a group of three thugs who obviously work for Kitty, but he manages to grab it from Kitty and escape unharmed. He searches the purse and finds $10,000 in cash, a handgun, barcoded blood samples, a CD-ROM, two tickets to Bangkok, and a birthday card with Rita’s address written on it. He goes to check out her address, find it’s empty and being cleaned out by KEVIN, the building owner. He agrees to rent the apartment, using Rita’s cash to secure it immediately. Kevin explains that Rita just up and disappeared a week ago and hasn’t paid her rent, so he’s renting her place.

The next day, Jim is threatened by two menacing Cambodians — CHEY and SENG — until Kevin pulls a gun on them. They leave willingly enough, and Kevin explains that they used to live there, but he threw them out. In retaliation, they ate his dog. He says they’re busboys at a restaurant in Chinatown. Jim buys a cheap barcode scanner, loads software from the CD-ROM onto his laptop, and scans the blood samples. They belong to famous Hollywood celebrities. Later, when Jim returns from the laundry room, he discovers the locks have been changed — his keys no longer work. Rita opens the door, aiming a gun at Jim. She’s found the blood samples, but she also wants to know where her cash and guns are.

After explaining his intentions to return to the bag, she spills everything: she works at a high-profile blood-bank, the Cambodians put her boyfriend JOEY (he’s gone missing, and he’s Kevin’s cousin) in touch with a doctor who came up with this plan to sell celebrity blood to a sex club whose patrons get off on the “vampire” lifestyle — they could make thousands from one drop of a celebrity’s blood, so she agreed to help them steal the samples. Kevin arrives and explains that everything Rita thought about this vampire-club deal — “Wicked Wonderland” — is pure fiction. The real story: he, Joey, and Kitty figured out a method to create stem cells from blood samples, then create sperm from stem cells. They intended to use this to create celebrity babies and extort the “father” for huge sums of money.

Kitty’s thugs chop of Joey’s finger and have it, and the remains of Kevin’s dog, delivered to Jim/Rita’s place in a Chinese food container. Joey calls up, begging for them to do whatever Kitty wants (little do they know, Joey is actually on Kitty’s side), and Kitty wants the blood samples, delivered to her that evening. Later, Kevin tells Joey about “the Doctor” — the man who can make their blood-to-sperm process a sure thing — who is in Bangkok. Jim tells Kevin about Rita’s plane tickets. Rita announces that they have to go to Joey’s penthouse (his father’s a wealthy doctor who owns the blood-bank) to get the real blood samples — the samples in Rita’s bag are fakes.

They find a party in full swing, led by DOUG (the doctor) and his porn-star wife MINDY. It’s being catered by Kitty’s restaurant, with the three thugs waiting tables. After a fight that results in Rita’s kidnapping, they get to talk with Doug and Mindy. They show them Joey’s finger — now on ice — and Doug makes excuses and denies. They get the real samples, and they realize both Doug and Joey are involved in Kitty’s plan. Kevin and Jim head to Jim’s house — not Rita’s former apartment. Turns out, he’s a government-employed computer hacker who basically knows all about the plans. He decides to help them screw over Kitty by writing a computer virus for the blood-bank’s system that will trick Kitty into believing their fake samples are real. They drop the samples off at Kitty’s restaurant and get Rita back. Turns out, they accidentally gave away the real samples. They discover Rita’s ticket to Bangkok has been canceled — and replaced with a ticket for Kitty. They have to get the samples back before Kitty and Joey get on that plane.

This leads them on a high-speed freeway chase on the way to the airport, during which they discover the Cambodian busboys are actually in charge of the operation, and the thugs have Joey — killed — rolled up in a carpet. They’re assigned to dump the body. While in pursuit, Jim, Kevin, and Rita make a deal with the thugs — they’ll give all the money in Kitty’s bank account to them if they switch sides. The thugs agree, so they’re no longer a problem. In fact, they’re sympathetic to Kevin’s sadness over losing Joey. Meanwhile, Jim reports Kitty’s car stolen, so her Lojack locks her out of the car, which they’ve tracked to a warehouse. There, they discover that Doug is the “Doctor,” the man behind the whole operation. A deal has been set up for someone else to pay $10 million for all the blood samples. The trip to Bangkok is actually retirement, to a private island. After another gunfight, their problems are solved. Kevin and Jim are friends, Jim and Rita get romantic, Doug and Kitty get their comeuppance, and nobody gets the blood samples.

Comments:

This script has a great first 10 pages — an absolutely great hook that reeled me in and generated so much positive energy that I didn’t realize until page 62 that, from page 11 on, not much had actually happened. The plot is overly complicated and there are too many characters, so the bulk of the script is written as long, stagnant scenes of characters delivering and redelivering exposition, revealing new plot developments, occasionally punctuated by pointing guns at each other. There are a few good action set-pieces, a few genuine surprises, but on the whole it’s a story with potential that needs a lot of work.

This story is pretty much a Hitchcock-style “innocent-man-stumbles-into-something-huge” plot. The blood samples and that whole plot are a big fat MacGuffin. Instead of standing around talking about the plot all the time, these people should be doing things — specifically, things that help to reveal their character. There’s some of that, but all the characters are still pretty thin, especially Jim. Part of this is by necessity, because he needs to remain mysterious until he reveals that he’s been tracking this deal all along; however, that reversal is pretty unnecessary and comes at the expense of developing his character.

Rather than concentrating so hard on the details of this blood conspiracy, the author should concentrate on the people involved: who are they, why do they do the things they do, etc. What’s the purpose of the Cambodians pretending to be busboys with a poor grasp of English? It’s made clear they don’t care particularly about the deal and don’t stand to gain much from it, and their loyalty is weak — so how do they feel about everything that’s going on, everything they’re forced to do, and why do they continue to work for Kitty? What’s at stake for them? As it stands, everything seems to come down to money matters. It could be a lot more interesting if their reasons — not the plot — were more complicated than money. As for the “good guys” — why is Jim so intrigued by Rita? Why are Kevin, Joey, and Rita so willing (almost eager) to involve themselves in criminal enterprises? Do any of these characters have any kind of moral/ethical concerns about this? If so, they should be addressed. If not, why? These are all questions that can be raised and answered in an exciting, action/conspiracy story — even within the action sequences themselves. Show us how clever Jim is, show us Kevin’s moral reservations, show us Rita’s grief over Joey’s betrayal, all while they’re trying to shoot their way into or out of places. If the last 110 pages are as interesting as the first 10, this could be a big winner.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 4:53 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

Borderline Crazy

Author: Michael Sean Conley
Genre: Action-Comedy
Storyline: 7
Dialogue: 8
Characterization: 7
Writer’s Potential: 7

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Consider

Logline:

When a car is stolen in small-town Texas, the parking attendants who allowed the theft to happen volunteer to go to Belize and steal it back.

Synopsis:

When internationally famous rock star BILLY JOE RACINE visits his hometown (Nowhere, TX), he has the valet service at the bowling alley he owns park his car — a gorgeous and rare black Lamborghini SUV. Instead of taking his parking stub, he autographs it amid a flurry of other autographs. EDIE, a parking attendant who once slept with Billy Joe before he found success (he barely remembers her), throws away his stub while her best friend OLLIE parks the car. Later, while Ollie has gone on a break, Billy Joe returns in silence. Edie retrieves the car, and Billy Joe drives off. Moments later, Edie realizes that it wasn’t actually Billy Joe — it was an uncanny lookalike who stole Billy Joe’s car, and the tape of his latest album. Billy Joe is furious, as are his A&R reps, and the bowling alley management, and the local police.

Police get word that the SUV is in Belize, but they refuse to get it. There’s no extradition, and the Belize police feel that unless a car is stolen in Belize, it’s not a stolen car. The Belize detective who found the SUV want a $500,000 ransom to return it. They balk. Ollie, who has lost his job, decides to volunteer himself and Edie to go to Belize and steal back the car — for free. Just so long as their jobs are reinstated and they aren’t charged with a crime. The police don’t like the idea, but that doesn’t matter much. Ollie and Edie book a flight to Belize. They find the vehicle quickly (rare as it is, it sticks out like a sore thumb). They tail the thief, QUIGLEY, until he gets out at a phone booth. Ollie rams their rented car against the booth so Quigley can’t get out. They easily steal the car (they have a set of keys) — and promptly discover a WOMAN gagged and bound in the backseat.

As it turns out, this woman — MONA — is the daughter of an influential man in Belize. She also got involved with Billy Joe on his last tour. She also looks uncannily like him — like a female twin who, with the right look, can pass for him. Turns out, she stole the car herself. Immediately they’re on the run — Quigley and his goon squad want Mona, REESE (an agent of Mona’s father) and his goon squad want both Mona and the car (they’ve been commissioned to find it by Billy Joe’s A&R reps), and COLONEL SANCHEZ (a Mexican federale) wants the car for the $50,000 reward posted by the insurance company.

The bulk of the storyline follows Mona (who initially thinks Ollie and Edie want to kidnap her, too, but quickly learns they just want to return it to Texas), Ollie, and Edie on the adventure from Mexico back to Texas. During this time, there’s a pseudo-love-triangle — both Ollie and Edie are uncomfortable to realize they share an attraction for Mona. They both fear for their heterosexuality, since Mona could convincingly look like a man but in attitude is a all woman. As things develop, Ollie and Edie’s brother-sister relationship blossoms into love in its own right, encouraged by Mona.

Along the way, they have a wild trip — setting fire to Sanchez’s marijuana field, accidentally winning the $50,000 top price in an SUV desert-race, finally getting across the border and returning the Lamborghini and his tape to Billy Joe, who himself is thrilled to be reunited with his lost love. Meanwhile, there are various subplots involving Quigley, Sanchez, and Reese. Sanchez seems to be under both Quigley’s and Reese’s thumbs, Quigley himself is working for Mona’s father. It’s a wild, strange conspiracy.

Everything turns out well, though — Ollie and Edie both get $50,000 (for the race and for returning the car) and fall in love, and order is restored to Billy Joe and Mona. Quigley, Sanchez, and Reese all get their comeuppance.

Comments:

This is a solid, well-written take on the Hitchcockian “innocent people accidentally stumble into something more complex than they’ll ever know” plot. The first act is loaded with surprises, culminating with finding Mona in the backseat. The rest of it is more straightforward but is still loaded with action. The love triangle allows good character insight for all three of the main characters, and it’s neither trite nor overdone. It has a nice balance. The screenplay itself does well balancing the humor of the situation with the seriousness of the jeopardy. The dialogue is tight — clever, not overly expository, funny.

The only real complaint I have is with all the reversals involving the villains. It provides a reasonable amount of character development for the villains, but all three of them never really get past the second dimension. All the odd “who’s working for whom and why” stuff just seems like complications for the sake of creating an overly convoluted storyline. It’s wild enough having three sets of villains working to catch this SUV — they don’t all need to have business relationships with one another, except for healthy, adversarial conflicts.

Another mild criticism: Mona’s seemingly endless supply of improvised explosive devices. I love explosions as much as the next guy, but it almost makes a difficult journey too easy. The author finds better, more surprising and interesting ways of getting them out of jams later in the script — why not find similarly clever ways without IEDs?

These aren’t huge issues, and even as-is it’s quite well-done. I really enjoyed it.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 3:01 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 26, 2006

Spin Doctor

Author: Evan Kilgore
Genre: Thriller/Drama
Storyline: 1
Dialogue: 3
Characterization: 5
Writer’s Potential: 3

Jump to: [Synopsis] [Comments]

Recommendation?

Pass

Logline:

A poor car-wash attendant thinks he’s dreaming of a life of wealth and goregous women, until he wakes up and finds out it’s real.

Synopsis:

Ten years ago, 17-year-old ANDREW watches his father LOU make a drug deal with mobster ALEXANDER BOYLE. In the present, LEM BRENNER works at a car wash. He’s poor, his wife JULIA is fed up with him, and it seems most of his life is spent at a bar with friends OWEN and NEIL. When Lem forgets “date night,” Julia locks herself in the den, leaving Andrew to sleep alone. He has what he thinks is a dream of going to an exclusive yacht party, driving a Mercedes, owning a mansion, and sleeping with gorgeous NINA. Everyone keeps calling him “Tom,” and he runs into Alexander Boyle at the party. When Lem wakes up the next morning in the mansion, he realizes it’s all true. He also realizes gunmen are after him, though he doesn’t know why. He leaves Nina and goes back to his “real” life — except with the Mercedes, which he shows off to all his friends and co-workers. In the Mercedes he finds an address scratched on the back of a business card. This starts an investigation — at the address he finds WAYLAND, a singer from the party the previous night. Wayland doesn’t know who he is or what he wants and asks Lem to leave. Lem tries to piece together the events of last night, revealed through flashbacks. He also recalls through flashbacks the events of 10 years ago — getting into a car accident with his six-year-old son MATT and Lou’s son, Andrew.

To impress angry Julia, Lem takes shows her the Mercedes and takes her to the mansion. He claims an uncle died and left it all to him. Julia finds a receipt for the Olympic Hotel and demands an explanation. Lem lies, saying he wanted to give her the option of a mansion or a cheap motel. Later that night, Lem gets a call from Owen. Lem meets him at the bar, but when he mistakes an attractive girl for Nina, he freaks out and leaves. In the Mercedes, he finds a Caprice with a Gunman driving pulls up alongside him. This leads to a chase, which Lem narrowly escapes. Back at the mansion, Julia’s gone — she found Nina’s bra from the previous night and left an angry note. Lem goes to spend the night at Owen’s. He’s awakened a few hours later by COPS who have come to check out the noise. Lem leaves the others sleeping and sneaks out the back door. At his apartment, Lem finds an angry message from Julia on their answering machine. He also discovers it’s being watched by the Caprice. He sneaks away in the Mercedes and goes to the docks where the yacht party was held. He bribes the VALET for information, and he gives Lem Nina’s address. The Caprice shows up and Lem makes another narrow escape. He goes back to his apartment and has an awkward moment with Julia. Lem drives to Malibu to find Nina. She says odd things that imply she knows more about the situation than she’s letting on. Two Jeeps chase after them. Lem and Nina escape to the Interstate in his Mercedes. The Jeeps fire rockets at them. Lem takes a downtown exit, and Nina forces them to stop — right in front of the Olympic Hotel. He realizes Nina is probably in on the whole thing when he recognizes her shoes — a pair identical to one he saw at Wayland’s home. They come across Julia at the hotel. She’s not pleased to see Lem with Nina. They argue, and she stalks off. Lem and Nina take a cab to Wayland’s house and find it empty, abandoned. A MERCENARY comes to take them out. Lem manages to escape, but Nina isn’t so lucky.

Lem goes to the police, a SERGEANT DIETZ, to report getting shot at. Dietz points out Lem’s picture on a wanted poster, with the name “TOM GOLDSTEIN,” wanted in connection with the death of Alexander Boyle. Lem convinces Dietz that he has the wrong man — Lem isn’t “Tom Goldstein.” Deitz runs Lem’s license and grudgingly lets him go. Lem — at this point looking like a bum — manages to get a lawyer’s business card. He goes to a department store to buy new clothes, gets himself all decked-out and smooth-looking, and returns to the police station. He speaks with DETECTIVE GREGOR, saying he’s Boyle’s lawyer. Gregor doesn’t believe him. Lem returns to the apartment, where Julia shows him separation papers. She’s kidnapped almost immediately. The police bust in and search his place. They find the bloody knife that killed Boyle. They arrest Lem, who calls Owen and has him use Tom Goldstein’s financial resources to bail him out. Once out, Lem realizes several things: he actually did kill Boyle (but was set up), when he was in the car accident that killed Matt and Andrew it was because Andrew had stolen drugs from Lou that belonged to Boyle, they were run off the road by Wayland (who worked for Boyle) — and Lou is behind the whole setup. Lem finally has to spill the beans — apparently he told Lou that Andrew ran off to join the navy, and he told Julia that Matt was kidnapped. He admits what happened, then pins it all on Wayland (who’s helping Lou). Lou is so angry that he causes another car accident. Lem wakes up in the hospital, with Julia in the next bed. Nina shows up, explains that she helped because Lou was her father, and emphasizes that Lem should be paying attention to his wife.

Comments:

On the positive side: the scenes at the beginning that establishes Lem’s character — his daily routine, his habit of lying, his marital problems, etc. — that all works pretty well. The reappearance of Julia periodically to continue that conflict also works, building toward that resolution where Lem can finally value his wife at the end.

However, this screenplay is packed to the gills with logic problems that render the story first incomprehensible, then just plain improbable:

  • When Lem wakes up to the sounds of gun-toting scumbags beating on his door and has to make a deft escape, why does he think it’s a good idea to take his wife back there? Especially when he didn’t even bother to remove the “evidence” of his infidelity the night before?
  • If I understand the basic conspiracy, it goes like this: to avenge his son, Lou wanted to not just frame Lem for Boyle’s death — he wanted to get him into a drugged state where he’d actually commit the crime. The ultimate goal, one assumes, is so that Lou can get some justice. It’s never really clear why Lou wants Boyle dead, why Wayland would go along with his own father’s murder, or why they’d send people to try and kill Lem when their main goal is to have him arrested and convicted of murder. Is that not their goal? If not, what’s the point of setting up the whole conspiracy in the first place? Why not just kill him?
  • In the same vein, what’s the purpose of providing Lem/”Tom” with a mansion, a fancy car, credit cards, etc.? All he has to do is exactly what he does: go back home, go back to work, realize this is a “fake” life. They go to great expense to get Lem to “accept” this fake life, but they don’t think he’d be curious enough about how he got this life to find out any information? Even if he isn’t, sending mercenaries to hunt him down seems like it’d make even the least curious person just a little bit interested in what’s going on with this fake life.
  • They also seem to provide him with just enough clues to put together the whole conspiracy, which seems like it’d be the antithesis of what they want. People going to the trouble and expense of creating an identity out of thin air would hopefully be smart enough to tie up loose ends like having key players’ addresses written down, hotel receipts in pockets, etc.
  • The mysterious house in the Hollywood Hills. It seems like an odd setup that’s never cleared up. Is this where Wayland actually lives? Did he clear out as soon as he knew Lem was on to him? As written, it kind of seems like an intentional layer of mind-fucking, but to what end? The visits to that house are some of the most helpful parts of Lem figuring out the conspiracy, so just what’s going on there needs to be made clear.
  • Sergeant Dietz scoffs at Lem for giving what he assumes is a fake ID. When he runs it and finds out it’s real, he gets angry but lets Lem go. He doesn’t think that, perhaps, “Tom Goldstein” is an alias? Or that “Tom” pasted his picture onto Lem’s real driver’s license (therefore all the information would check out)? Or that a guy accused of murdering a known mobster wouldn’t have the resources to plant plenty of legitimate-but-fake IDs in police databases? Why would Dietz let him go?
  • From the beginning of the script, it’s clear that Lem lies constantly, but he’s possibly the worst liar I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to believe he could have kept the charade involving Andrew and Matt going for any length of time. Even if he did — why? Obviously Lou is fond of blood-vendettas, but considering how easily he accepts that Lem was pushed off the road by somebody else because Andrew had his cocaine, it seems really crazy that Lem would keep it a secret. Lou could put two and two together and realize Lem’s telling the truth. Lem can feel guilty all he wants, but he wasn’t responsible for the accident. Even the police (who obviously handled the situation; Lou mentions a police report) didn’t find him responsible/negligent, so why the big cover-up? I’m not saying he doesn’t have to cover it up or lie about it, but (a) make him a better liar, and (b) make it clear exactly why he felt he needed to lie to both Julia and Lou about everything for a decade.
  • Big loose end: Lem actually did kill Boyle (didn’t he? if not, that’s unclear). So sure, he survives and unravels the conspiracy, but he’s still got a murder rap to beat. Considering he actually did the crime, this might not be easy.

Aside from this, another big problem pops up on page one: the short scene involving Andrew, Lou, and Boyle. It makes everything too obvious — we know it’s going to come back to those three in the end. By the time we realize Andrew is most likely dead in a car accident (which is obvious long before it’s fully shown to be true) and Boyle was murdered recently, the Lou reveal is pretty obvious. There’s nobody else it could be.

It seems kind of silly that Wayland is Boyle’s son, and as I pointed out it creates a logic problem as far as why he’d allow Boyle’s murder to take place. Making him hired muscle, willing to do anything for the highest bidder, makes it far more believable and loses the necessity for an explanation for why he wants Boyle dead; his only loyalty is to money, so Boyle doesn’t matter. It’s also a little too neat and tidy that not only is he Boyle’s son, but Nina is Lou’s daughter. It oversimplifies the motivations — both Wayland and Nina are willing to commit crimes (or force others to commit crimes) out of nothing but family loyalty? It diminishes their characters by not giving them any ulterior motives or shades of gray.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 11:49 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Professional Script Coverage

July 16, 2006

The Manager

A few weeks ago, my friend Matt announced that he had taken an unpaid “e-internship” reading scripts for a manager in Los Angeles. He told me it was great: dude e-mails him scripts, he reads them and e-mails back coverage. He could do it all while working a full-time job in Chicago. At the end of the summer, he gets a good reference and/or a letter of recommendation, plus he gets all that experience, and maybe a guy who will look at his scripts. I thought it sounded nice, but maybe not the thing for me…

…until he gave me the icing on the cake: “So I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks, and the guy offered me a paid position this fall.” Paid position, eh? He told me, “This guy seems desperate for readers — I sent him my resume, not even expecting to hear back, and he responded in a few hours with a message that said, ‘Welcome aboard’ and a screenplay attached.” He gave me the contact info, and I sent my resume. Just as he said, that night, the guy e-mailed me a script.

When I interned last summer, I had the joy/torture of reading scripts that were mostly “production-ready,” or close to it. Some of them were pretty good; most of them weren’t, but they had certain elements that distinguished them from amateur work — usually professional dialogue and tight structure. “Professional,” of course, doesn’t mean “well-written” — definitely readable, natural, but still usually on-the-nose or plot-centric instead of character-centric. And some people like William Goldman, and probably these latter-day “script gurus” like Syd Field and Robert McKee insist that structure is the most important thing to a screenplay. I agree with that, but the key that many of these writers seemed to forget was that structure isn’t the only important thing. A series of meaningless plot points don’t make a good screenplay.

But alas, now that I’m on the other end of the spectrum — unpolished newbies looking for a shot — I’ve read some real crap. Unprofessional, not entertaining, no dramatic structure, no characters, some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever read, and sadly, many of these scripts won or received “honorable mention” in UCLA’s recent screenwriting contest. I’ve read many of the scripts on that list, and I thought one of them was very good; the rest are awful.

This has a two-pronged effect on me: on the one hand, it builds my confidence. I know I’m better than stuff that’s won a reasonably prestigious contest. On the other hand, it really depresses me that I haven’t yet “made it.” Yeah, I know, time, hard work, perserverance, et cetera, but it’s tragic to me that agents and managers are spraying their shorts over the UCLA winners, and the scripts are terrible. I have no idea how these people won, but I’d pay money to read some of the screenplays that ended up on the reject pile.

So I thought it was a good thing when this manager called me about 10 days ago, ostensibly to shoot the shit, then said, “You’re a writer, right?”

“Yup,” I said.

“Well, you do great analysis, so I’d really like to take a look at something you’ve written,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, thinking this was my chance: if this guy was seriously considering such rotten material, what I had would blow his mind.

“Yeah, so, just send me something in the next couple of days and I’ll look at it this weekend,” the manager said.

I agreed…but I didn’t trust him. Googling him and his company hadn’t really turned up anything, which made me a tiny bit suspicious — I knew, if nothing else, that he’d never gotten anything sold. I’d also noticed some weirdness in the e-mails he’d sent me that, combined with the phone conversations I’d had with him, led me to concoct and elaborate and (I now know) erroneous theory:

I originally thought he had a huge network of unpaid interns, all across the country, reading scripts for him. After a couple of weeks, he’d ask to see their material, then farm it out to other writers. Essentially, he played a numbers game: if he sent it to 10 interns and got 10 positive responses, he’d maybe send it to 10 more and say what kind of response he got, but more likely he’d just read the script himself and make a judgment. I thought two things when I realized this: shady, and…well, clever. But it explained the anonymity, his apparent animosity with interns knowing each other, strangely blind-carbon-copying what I assume is a whole mailing list but trying to make it seem like a “personalized” e-mail, et cetera.

I had one of my good friends in Los Angeles do some detective work for me. She has access to sites like IMDb Pro and Filmtracker, which I do not, and she’d be able to find out his contacts. She e-mailed me back and said he’s listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory and on Filmtracker, which could either be a sign that he’s legit or a sign that he has a lot of money to burn. (This led me to think that, in the grand scheme of things, if he wanted to do something like steal good scripts from people, it’d be much cheaper to get listed in legitimate places than to buy the screenplays.) She also uncovered some stuff that made me believe he was, quite simply, insane.

Strike one: a lot of bizarre, inflammatory (literally, what people on Usenet call “flaming”) posts regarding some hip-hop television show he supposedly produced (Filmtracker doesn’t show him as having any credits). The initial post would be hyping up the show; this would be followed by several posts mocking him or the show; and finally, he’d strike back with bizarre, obscenity-laced rants.

Strike two: he spent a lot of time planning, with a guy on a random fan forum, treatments and screenplays for a trilogy of live-action movies based on a semi-obscure comic book, which he claimed he’d pitch to a major studio. This was in October of last year. He personally posted several times in the thread, vacillating between stuff like “I’m a wannabe, too,” and “We pitch to the studio next week.” From there, I simply wasn’t sure of his credentials. Most people with the connections and access to pitch a big-budget franchise idea they don’t even own to a major studio don’t call themselves “wannabes.”

I didn’t know what to make of any of these forum posts. In both cases, one side showed an overall ignorance/naïvete that I don’t think would be acceptable as far as representation goes, while the other side showed an intense passion for the stuff he wants to do. I could think of worse qualities in a manager than passion for my work.

I still didn’t trust him, though. Matt’s bottom line was, “Don’t give him any money. Ever.” This is obvious, of course, but — not to sound too arrogant — to me, handing over my screenplays all willy-nilly is pretty much like handing him money. I happen to think, based on my own opinion and the opinions of several I trust, that I have a good store of material built up. I can’t just hand it out to any asshole who calls himself a manager. Sure, I’m desperate for steady employment in a field I care about, and I’m desperate for anything like a foot in the door, but I’m not desperate enough to be an idiot.

I had a plan. I have a friend in a band who’s an entertainment attorney; in exchange for updates to her band’s site, she’s offered me free legal advice (always prefaced with “I AM NOT YOUR LAWYER, but…”). I’d ask the manager for a release form. If he gave me a hassle on that, I’d know he was shady and refuse to send him anything. If he didn’t, I’d send it to my lawyer friend. She’d look it over, tell me whether or not it was acceptable, and either I’d sign it if it was or she’d rewrite it if it wasn’t.

You might be wondering, “Gee, Derek, why are you so obsessed with a release form? Surely you had your screenplays copyrighted and registered with the Writer’s Guild of America…” I did the latter, because it’s easier and cheaper: just e-mail them a PDF and PayPal $25, and you’re registered for five years. For reasons I can’t figure out, I’ve been told that WGA registration is “meaningless,” and copyrighting is the only thing that affords real protection. But I…hadn’t done that, because it costs almost twice as much and you have to go to the effort of printing a hard copy and mailing it. Damn my laziness!

But that’s only part of the story — even if I sent out the copyright stuff before I sent this guy the scripts (and I sent them out last weekend), there’s another layer to the horror of intellectual property law. Because there are so many derivative movies being made all the time, I have the burden of proving not only that I wrote a similar screenplay (because that’s old news) but that I had a business relationship with this person and that he did, in fact, read my screenplay prior to selling his own similar screenplay or making his similar movie. That’s where the release form comes in handy.

Of course, it’d be nice and fun if you could go on down to the Library of Congress, pull out my screenplay, and say, “Ha-HA! This is exactly the same.” But it won’t be, because if he’s smart enough to have a system to steal screenplays, he’s not going to be dumb enough to start sending around my script, verbatim, with his name on it. Even if he does, it’ll go so far through the development wringer that it’ll come out unrecognizable. Chances are I’ll never even know about the theft until it either sells or goes into production, and it’ll be far beyond what my script looks like.

Some might wonder, if the burden of proof is a direct result of every movie in Hollywood having similar ideas behind them, can’t you still shop around your original script around? They always say, ideas aren’t copyrightable — it’s all in the execution. Well, it’s probable that I could. In fact, it’s probable that if a movie that started out as my stolen screenplay is successful, that’ll be better for me in the long run, because it’ll be easier to sell something that’s already succeeded. If it fails, though, I’m screwed.

Besides, what if they change it just enough for me to theoretically not have any “actionable” claims, but enough that I could never sell the screenplay? Intellectual property law is a nightmare, so I’d rather not have to get embroiled in anything crazy. As such, I’d like to be safe and smart.

So I asked the manager for a release form, and he wrote me back, “No release form is unnecessary.” I still haven’t figured out if this is a typo or some kind of shrewd, crafty response to confuse me. If it’s the latter, it sure worked; on top of this puzzling statement, he reaffirmed (for the third or fourth time in two days) how much he looked forward to reading my scripts this weekend. What is the fucking rush? I’ve always learned that in business, if the other guy is trying to put a clock on things, run away.

I wrote back and insisted he send me a release form. I actually figured he wouldn’t, and then I could cop out and refuse to send anything. Sadly, he called my bluff. Ironically, his release form made me trust him even less. Of the six terms listed, three of them were clauses that essentially said, “I hereby give you the right to steal the ideas presented in my screenplay and will be entitled to no compensation or legal action if you steal them.” I didn’t even need a lawyer to go over this — it was pure bullshit.

I was at a crossroads. I wanted to have it both ways: not send him my scripts, but still read for him. This was mostly motivated by my desire to get steady employment as a reader in the fall. He can be as shady as he wants with other people, so long as they’re sending him scripts for me to read on a full-time, paid basis. (At the time, I was way ahead of myself; he hadn’t even offered me a job. He has since then.) But I also saw it as a good opportunity to continue feeling him out, to try and figure out if he’s a total fraud who wants to steal scripts, or just a newbie manager who really is passionate and wants to do well but just…isn’t so competent. Maybe from inexperience, maybe from ignorance — who knows? I certainly didn’t.

Sunday morning, I hit on a good excuse. I told him I was blowing off e-mails and being evasive about sending him stuff because I thought the scripts needed minor polishing, but it turned into major revisions, and I didn’t feel comfortable sending him anything that was less than perfect. He accepted that but maintained he was eager to read them “soon.” Since then, he’s kinda gotten off my back. I’ve also had more time to seek out information about him.

I still don’t know whether or not he’s a fraud, but I looked up many of the titles and authors on the screenplays I’ve written and have discovered that a number of these scripts — while terrible — are written by actual, professional writers in other areas (mostly comics). So he has clients. He’s also “opened up” a little more in the e-mails he’s sent me, and I’ve been swapping info with my e-intern friend. From that, I’ve deduced that he does know what he’s talking about regarding these scripts. Or, at least, he and I are on a similar wavelength as far as what we think is good or bad. I was worried that, even if he had the production company and studio contacts he claimed, he might fuck himself by sending over a lot of inferior scripts. So far, the only one he’s suggested sending out has been the only one I thought was exceptional. That’s a good sign.

In my Googling, I found a list of companies he supposedly has contacts with. Over the next week or two, I intend to call most (or all) of them trying to dig up information on him — have they heard of him, his company, the writers he represents, and what do they think of him/them? If I get a lot of positive responses in the first few, I probably won’t go down the whole list. So we’ll see. Like my e-intern pal says, either we’re getting in on the ground floor of something great, or this guy will fold like a cheap card-table and we’ll be cut loose.

But at least we’ll have the experience.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 5:43 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, The Manager, The Reader

July 17, 2006

Pepper

Growing up, I spent a whole lot of time at my grandmother’s house. With both my parents working much of the time (at one point, my dad was working three jobs and my mom was working another), and my sister and I getting in trouble all the time, my mom decided to nip that shit in the bud by sending us to our grandmother’s house. My grandma had two dogs: Maggie, a black half-poodle, half-puli; and Pepper, a gray miniature schnauzer. I hated Maggie because when I was six years old, she bit my finger for no particular reason. But I loved Pepper. I’ll spend my entire life trying to reach a point where I can have my own dog, just so I can get another gray miniature schnauzer and hope that he’s half as awesome as Pepper.

Pepper and I were inseparable for a few years, but then my dad got a better job, so he could quit all three of his and my mom could quit hers and be a stay-at-home mom. We didn’t need to go to my grandmother’s as often (not every day, anyway), so I didn’t see Pepper as often. A few years later, he started getting decrepit. He went blind and started to go deaf. He never went nuts or anything like the yappy dog next door (which finally died, thank God), but it was pretty sad to see him always walking into walls or getting into wacky trouble because he couldn’t hear the call to “take a break” (which had become his command to take a fucking hike when he got annoying).

His death was pretty tragic for me, even though we only shared a close bond for maybe six months. But I still kind of miss him every once in awhile, which brings me to the ultra-depressing dream I had last night. I think it may have been prompted by Oy’s mournful behavior in The Dark Tower, because I’ve never really had such a vivid and depressing dream about a dog before. I think it was Pepper in dog-heaven — which looks suspiciously like the long, dark-wood, dimly lit, L-shaped hallway in my grandmother’s house — mourning the death of my grandmother. For some reason I was there, too (is this a sign of my fate?), trying to comfort his sadness, but he refused to eat, refused to play, wouldn’t let me pet him. He just slept all the time and eventually withered and died.

I awoke disturbed, but I didn’t think much of it until I tried to explain it to my sister. I realized my eyes were rimmed with tears and that this dream had had a more profound effect on me than I had originally known. I guess it just saddened and disturbed me that I was so thoroughly unable to comfort the depressed dog in his time of need. I think that reflects on my hilarious lack of sensitivity in my waking life. But as I look back on a life of cruelty and insensitivity, I do realize that I feel the most regret for a household pet in a dream that never happened and never will. Take that, people I’ve wronged!

Posted by D. B. Bates at 5:45 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, My Life and Times and Random Observations

July 14, 2006

The Dark Tower

Finished the Dark Tower this afternoon. Good Lord. The ending — I’m talking the last two or three pages — almost redeemed at least this last book from being a total failure, but the more I think of it, the more I just feel horribly cheated by Stephen King.

Yeah, yeah, I know the whole Comic Book Guy routine — he doesn’t owe me anything, but I read the first three books in 1994, and they’re nothing short of astonishing. I’d rate the second one as probably the best thing he’s ever written, and the first and third rank up there. I had to wait a few years for the fourth book, which was terrible and a big disappointment — which only made the (all told) decade I waited for him to finally finish the story more unbearable. “He has to redeem himself for this crap heap of a book…right? Right?!”

Wrong, motherfuckers. I’d rather be sentenced to an eternity spent reading that fourth book over and over again than ever touch books five, six, and seven again.

Full disclosure: I actually really, really liked the sixth book. It geared me up for what I assumed would be a kick-ass ending. It was short and sweet (for a Stephen King book — dude doesn’t shut up!), and very focused and lean because most of the legwork to set up the plots and subplots had been established in the previous BORING AS SHIT installment. However, in hindsight of what all those storylines became in the seventh book, I’ll gladly lump Song of Susannah together with Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower as the three worst books he’s ever written. No, maybe Black House is still worse. Tough call.

WARNING

There may be some spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to dance around the big events because I’m not convinced anyone cares enough for me to tag every spoiler (and I’m not convinced any of these will be spoilers if you’re DT fan, even if you haven’t finished the books). Also, I think this should serve as a warning if anyone is a fan — you should willingly let me spoil it, because my vague synopses and criticisms couldn’t possibly be worse than the books themselves.

So the main thing I really hated about these last three books were the meaningless entrances and exits of characters from King’s other books. It was kind of cute/creepy when the gunslinger and his ka-tet stumbled into the universe of The Stand. It was less cute and not at all creepy when other random characters started popping in.

I’ve been outspoken for a long time about my disgust over King intentionally writing novels and short stories whose sole purpose of existence is to bridge the “real” world with the universe/story he created in DT. Aside from a trip to Iowa where I had so little to do I kept picking up Stephen King paperbacks Sara had lying around her apartment and reading out of sheer boredom, I haven’t tried to read a “new” Stephen King novel or short story since Black House. Before that, it was Insomnia. These two rank among the worst books he’s written, and — not coincidentally — they both exist almost exclusively to tie two of his earlier works to the DT world (The Talisman and It, respectively).

To add insult to injury, none of this means anything. None of the random DT references and character “cameos” in other books, none of the references to his other novels within the DT — none of it amounts to jack shit in the long run. These characters, who have been gracelessly inserted into the Dark Tower story, serve three functions:

  1. “Oh isn’t that cute — it’s that guy from that short story about the kid who meets the guy everyone thinks he’s crazy”-type recognition factor. (I list this first because, I hate to say it, but I really think this is the only reason King did this — about as close to written masturbation as you can get without a mild hallucinogen.)
  2. To run into the gunslinger and the ka-tet, vomit out as much expository dialogue as possible in a short amount of time, maybe involve themselves in a plot point or two, then either die or disappear into the sunset.
  3. To keep the story moving. At this point in the story, at the places these folks visit on the last few legs of their journey, they wouldn’t discover any of the information they get without help from these other characters.

Sure, King could have put them in other places. Like, say, instead of dominating the whole of Wolves of the Calla with an extraordinarily bland rip-off of The Magnificent Seven — well, I don’t know where he could have set it, but he spends so much goddamn time on that stupid storyline, he could have just as easily removed the entire thing and had a book-length number of pages to come up with something without inserting characters from other books.

The worst affront? Inserting himself into the story. Sure, it’s occasionally amusing that even in the fictional world, everybody either thinks he’s a hack writer or incredibly lazy (or both), but — WHY THE FUCK DID HE WRITE HIMSELF INTO THE STORY? What does it add, other than convolution? In the end, it adds nothing.

And that’s the biggest disappointment: the conclusions of every single character’s stories, the conclusion of the overall plot itself, and the very last pages of the book render the entire seven-volume book pointless. Every death — meaningless. All seven books, the epic quest, the drawing of the three from our world, the plot developments, character developments — meaningless. The villains, whom he spends the cours of three entire books developing and who are both killed in about 30 seconds. The Tower itself — meaningless. Right, right, it’s a metaphor, but I ain’t talking in metaphors, I’m talking in fucking endings, I’m talking about making an investment in seven books and, at this point, 12 years (for some who were with it from the beginning, more than 20), for a book that amounts to nothing.

I’m not even necessarily talking about the very, very, very last-three-pages end, either. I’m talking about the last, oh, 100-150 pages, where everything really comes to a boil. Every single thing that happens is just, for lack of a better word, lame.

It’s incredibly disappointing that King himself spent over 30 years on this project, and aside from forming the ka-tet and continuing the quest for the Tower, the overarching “save the universe” plot itself didn’t really kick in until the fifth book. It’s just horribly disappointing that King decided to go with these storylines — writing himself into it, bringing back characters, the stupid “we must get back to America-side and form a corporation” bullshit, Susannah’s pregnancy. I was even willing to put up with that “who’s really the father and what kind of freak am I carrying?” pregnancy, the most operatic of all soap opera plotlines, if it had led to something remotely interesting. In the end, it didn’t.

After creating such a rich universe, such great characters, and hinting at interesting storyline possibilities, it’s tragic and disappointing that these three books are the final product.

It’s funny — a few pages before the epilogue, King has this pretentious and obnoxious rant about how he’s fine ending it where it is (where there hasn’t even been an actual fucking ending) and remembering these characters without knowing what happens to the gunslinger inside the Tower. It’s irritating because he implies we’re assholes for wanting an ending with real finality after investing time and energy in over a half-dozen books that span two decades, thousands of pages long.

Me? I really, really wish I could travel back in time (even mentally, to attempt to erase these books from my head) and remember the characters on Blaine the Mono, in the middle of a riddling contest with an insane, sentient train, unsure of where they’d stop (if they stopped or survived), their fates uncertain. Sure, you knew they’d survive — but what would happen once the monorail stopped? The hints of storylines and possibilities all spread out before you, allowing you to just pluck at random and come up with any story you want, sharing your own imagination with the imagination that created this world in the first place.

So yes, I’d recommend people read the first three books: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Wastelands. And sit back, contemplative but pleased, in love with these characters and this world, trying to guess what could happen next. Because guess what — anything, and I mean anything that your imagination comes up with will be at least one million times better than anything that happens in Wizard & Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower.

Fuckin’ Stephen King, man.

Posted by D. B. Bates at 11:33 PM | Print-Friendly | Comments (0) | Blog Posts, Reviews